Senate GOP leader plays down latest Trump controversy
By Erica Werner
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell downplayed on Tuesday the startling reports that President Donald Trump disclosed highly classified information to a pair of Russian diplomats in the Oval Office. But a number of GOP lawmakers expressed concerns, as Democrats demanded that Republicans finally stand up to their president.
McConnell, R-Ky., on Tuesday responded mildly when asked about the leak story in an interview on Bloomberg Business TV. McConnell said he’d read the story first reported in The Washington Post, and also said he’d read a statement from H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, “which tends to rebut the story.”
“I think we could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things,” McConnell said, “so that we can focus on our agenda, which is deregulations, tax reform, repealing and replacing Obamacare.”
The events detailed in the explosive Post story occurred days after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in the midst of the bureau’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible ties to the Trump campaign. That event was already unsettling Republicans on Capitol Hill, but McConnell’s reaction appeared designed to mute any notion that GOP lawmakers might begin abandoning Trump.
Asked if he had concerns about Trump’s ability to handle classified information, McConnell responded with a simple “no.” Reporters at the Capitol pressed the top Republican, who repeated his desire for less drama from the White House.
At least one Republican, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, strongly defended the president.
“There isn’t anybody who can run the White House without criticism,” Hatch told reporters. “This man has been subject to more criticism than any predecessor that I know of. They hate him, they didn’t like the fact that he won, he beat their favorite, it was a remarkable election.”
Other GOP lawmakers, however, were not ready to move on so quickly.
In a statement Tuesday, Armed Services Chairman John McCain called the reports that Trump shared sensitive intelligence with Russian officials “deeply disturbing.”
“Reports that this information was provided by a U.S. ally and shared without its knowledge sends a troubling signal to America’s allies and partners around the world and may impair their willingness to share intelligence with us in the future,” said McCain, R-Ariz.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, called for an immediate briefing for the Senate Intelligence Committee, of which she is a member.
“Although the president has the legal authority to disclose classified information, it would be very troubling if he did share such sensitive reporting with the Russians,” Collins said.
Another prominent Republican, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters as the news broke Monday evening that the Trump White House is “in a downward spiral” and has “got to do something soon to bring itself under control and order.”
The House has not yet come back into session for the week, but a spokesman for Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said Monday that, “We have no way to know what was said, but protecting our nation’s secrets is paramount. The speaker hopes for a full explanation of the facts from the administration.”
Numerous Democrats pointed out that Ryan had called for Democrat Hillary Clinton to be denied classified briefings after Comey concluded last year that she was careless in how she handled classified information over her email accounts and private email server. “If you’ve ever wondered what you’d do if forced to decide between party and country, this is that moment,” No. 2 Senate Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois said in a tweet directed at Ryan.
Ryan’s aides countered by pointing out that in the same July 2016 opinion piece where he called for Clinton to be denied classified briefings because of her email practices, Ryan also said those briefings could resume if she were actually elected.
One House Republican considered vulnerable in next year’s midterm elections called the “inexplicable stories” from the White House “highly troubling.”
Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia said in a statement that Congress should get immediate classified briefings on what occurred “so that Congress can at least know as much as Russian leaders” and the impact on national security.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said the Intelligence Committee should have access to transcripts from last week’s Oval Office meeting where Trump reportedly shared details about an Islamic State terror threat related to the use of laptop computers on aircraft with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak.
The classified information had been shared with the president by an ally, violating the confidentiality of an intelligence-sharing agreement with that country.