With Adam Rawnsley
It never stops. It. Never. Stops. In the latest installment of the daily scandal machine that is the Trump administration, the Washington Post dropped a stunning story late Monday reporting that President Trump disclosed highly classified information to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during their visit to the Oval Office last week.
And it wasn’t just any classified information. This was what is known as “code-word information,” one of the highest classification levels used by American spy agencies. The information the president reportedly passed on about a plot being hatched by the Islamic State was shared with Washington by an ally who did not authorize its distribution to anyone but a small circle in Washington. Or as one administration official said, Trump “revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies.”
Pushback. Top administration is denying the reports. Or at least is denying something. National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster delivered a quick statement Monday saying, “I was in the room — it didn’t happen.” He added, “at no time — at no time — were intelligence sources or methods discussed, and the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a similar statement. Problem is, none of the stories claimed that sources and methods were exposed.
And then on Tuesday morning, Trump dive-bombed McMaster’s statement that “it didn’t happen,” when he took to Twitter to confirm that in fact he did share classified information with the Russians via Twitter. Trump said he has the “absolute right” to share with top Russian officials information about an Islamic State threat. McMaster is slated to brief the press in the White House Briefing Room this afternoon.
As the New York Times said, “according to the officials, Mr. Trump discussed the contents of the intelligence, not the sources and methods used to collect it. The concern is that knowledge of the information about the Islamic State plot could allow the Russians to figure out the sources and methods.” One current administration official told the paper that Trump “shared granular details of the intelligence with the Russians. Among the details the president shared was the city in Syria where the ally picked up information about the plot, though Mr. Trump is not believed to have disclosed that the intelligence came from a Middle Eastern ally or precisely how it was gathered.”
Quite a run. Over the past week, the president has stunned his own staff by abruptly firing FBI director James Comey, blown up the carefully constructed story his administration crafted to explain it by admitting he fired Comey over his work investigating possible ties between his campaign and Russia, threatened Comey while suggesting the president secretly taped their conversations, and disclosed classified information to the Russians. “It never stops,” one White House official told Politico Monday night. “Basically chaos at all times.”
According to Politico, one adviser said the Oval Office conversation was likely unstructured, and the president “doesn’t really know any boundaries. He doesn’t think in those terms,” this adviser said. “He doesn’t sometimes realize the implications of what he’s saying. I don’t think it was his intention in any way to share any classified information. He wouldn’t want to do that.”
Add this! The president leaves later this week for a swing through Saudi Arabia, Italy, and a stop in Brussels for a NATO meeting. And FP’s Robbie Gramer has exclusive details about how NATO allies are planning to deal with the unpredictable American leader.
“NATO is scrambling to tailor its upcoming meeting to avoid taxing President Donald Trump’s notoriously short attention span. The alliance is telling heads of state to limit talks to two to four minutes at a time during the discussion.” One source briefed extensively on the meeting’s preparations told FP, “it’s kind of ridiculous how they are preparing to deal with Trump,” adding, “it’s like they’re preparing to deal with a child — someone with a short attention span and mood who has no knowledge of NATO, no interest in in-depth policy issues, nothing…they’re freaking out.”
Syrian atrocities. The regime of Bashar al Assad is using a crematorium at its notoriously brutal Sednaya military prison near Damascus to secretly dispose of the bodies of thousands of prisoners it continues to execute, U.S.officials said Monday.
Acting assistant secretary of state Stuart Jones told reporters, “what we’re assessing is that if you have that level of production of mass murder, then using the crematorium would . . . allow the regime to manage that number of corpses . . . without evidence,” and “we believe that the building of a crematorium is an effort to cover up the extent of mass murders taking place in Sednaya prison.”
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Whodunnit. Who’s behind the global ransomware pandemic that hit Windows machines this weekend? No one knows, but so far investigators are finding preliminary clues that suggest the possibility that North Korea could have had a role in the attacks. The New York Times reports that researchers at Symantec have found that the WannaCry ransomware uses tools with similar code to tools used in attacks previously attributed to North Korea, including the breach of Sony’s networks, the theft of $81 million from a Bangladesh bank. However, experts caution that the link is far from conclusive and not enough to attribute the ransomware to Pyongyang.
Espionage for hire. A cybersecurity firm trying to keep Iranian hackers out of a defense contractor’s network may have stumbled onto a Russian connection. Officials from the cybersecurity TrapX tell the New York Times that the hackers moving through an unnamed defense contractor’s network used a unique set of tools developed by a Russian hacker-for-hire. The tools were available in the cybercrime underworld, meaning that it’s possible the Iranian intruders could’ve simply downloaded and adapted them. But the hackers’ use of a server previously used in the hack of a Ukrainian power grid led defenders to believe that the Iranian hackers may have partnered with a Russian mercenary.
PsyOp texts. On the frontlines of Ukraine’s war against Russian-backed rebels, someone is bombarding the cellphones of pro-government troops with taunting and threatening text messages. The AP got a look at a number of the messages, some of the spoofed to appear as though they came from retreating fellow soldiers while others merely threatened recipients that “they’ll find your bodies when the snow melts” as artillery rained down. The messages are targeted and sent via cell site simulators, hardware designed to imitate a cell tower and trick phones in range into connecting to it.
Knockoffs. American special operators are used to training and fighting with partner forces that use Russian-made arms rather than American gear. So rather than navigate the sometimes shady international arms market to equip allies, Special Operations Command now wants to build their own kit. According to the National Interest, the command is now looking to make a copy of the Russian PKM machine gun. Interested contractors will have to secure their own drawings to see if they can reverse engineer a copy of the weapon fit for the command’s use.
Feuds. Germany and Turkey’s ongoing political feuds have escalated into a threatened German withdrawal of its forces stationed at Incirlik Air Base. Germany’s announcement that its troops participating in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State could leave Turkey follows legislation from the Turkish parliament banning a German parliamentary delegation from visiting soldiers at the base. German officials are considering a range of alternate locations for their troops, including Cyprus, Jordan, and Kuwait.
New phone, who dis? Schiller, don’t you lose that number. If you want to dial up Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis on his personal cell phone, turns out all you need to do is look closely at pictures of President Trump’s bodyguard, Keith Schiller. An attentive reader phoned up the Washington Post to let them know that a picture the paper ran showed a yellow sticky note with a phone number and the words “Jim, Mad Dog, Mattis” attached to papers carried by Schiller. When a Post report called the number, the voicemail confirmed that it did indeed belong to Mattis.
Photo Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images