President Donald Trump said he never named Israel during an Oval Office conversation with Russian officials in which he reportedly revealed sensitive intelligence gathered by an unidentified U.S. ally.
His off-the-cuff remarks to reporters in Jerusalem before a meeting Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to confirm Israel as the source. And it took Trump off script on a trip in which the president for the first few days had maintained an uncharacteristic discipline in his public comments.
Trump blurted out a defense of his conduct in the May 10 meeting with the diplomats when a U.S. reporter asked Netanyahu at a photo session whether the Israeli prime minister was concerned about sharing sensitive intelligence with the U.S.
Netanyahu said U.S.-Israeli “intelligence cooperation is terrific and it’s never been better.”
As reporters were preparing to leave, Trump interjected.
“I never mentioned the word or the name Israel, never mentioned during that conversation. They’re all saying I did,” Trump said. “So you have another story wrong. Never mentioned the word Israel.”
Neither the questioner nor either of the leaders mentioned Russia in the exchange but both men were responding to reports that Trump passed classified intelligence to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak.
The Washington Post, citing unidentified intelligence officials, reported Trump told the diplomats information about an Islamic State plot to use laptop computers as possible weapons on commercial aircraft. The president shared so much detail, the Post reported, that Russian spies and potentially their Iranian and Syrian allies would be able to figure out the sources and methods a U.S. ally has used to penetrate the inner workings of the terrorist group’s operations in Syria.
The New York Times later reported that the ally that provided the intelligence to the U.S. was Israel. Neither government has confirmed the report.
H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, has defended Trump’s handling of the intelligence in the meeting as “wholly appropriate.” Administration officials have said Trump didn’t identify the source of the information in the meeting.
George Little, an Obama administration CIA and Defense Department spokesman, said in an email that intelligence relationships can be put at risk without specifically identifying who provided the information.
“It’s a simple fact in the world of intelligence that you don’t have to specifically name another country to put its sources at risk,” Little said. “Sharing just a tiny ounce of highly classified information can potentially jeopardize those sources and the sensitive intelligence collection operations of our overseas partners.”