Patio 'Situation Room'? Trump faces criticisms over reports of sensitive talks in public dining room at Florida club

The US president seemed to be aware at one point that he was being photographed, with a photo published in The Guardian showing Mr Trump smiling at the camera, while Mr Abe was getting up from his seat and aides were huddling behind them.
The US president seemed to be aware at one point that he was being photographed, with a photo published in The Guardian showing Mr Trump smiling at the camera, while Mr Abe was getting up from his seat and aides were huddling behind them.PHOTO: ERIKA BAIN
Japan's PM Shinzo Abe and US President Donald Trump, at a news conference to address a missile North Korea launched toward the sea off its eastern coast, at the Mar-a-Lago resort, on Feb 11, 2017.
Japan's PM Shinzo Abe and US President Donald Trump, at a news conference to address a missile North Korea launched toward the sea off its eastern coast, at the Mar-a-Lago resort, on Feb 11, 2017. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie Abe attending dinner with US President Donald Trump and his wife Melania at Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, on Feb 10, 2017.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie Abe attending dinner with US President Donald Trump and his wife Melania at Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, on Feb 10, 2017. PHOTO: AFP
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie Abe attending dinner with US President Donald Trump and his wife Melania at Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, on Feb 10, 2017.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie Abe attending dinner with US President Donald Trump and his wife Melania at Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, on Feb 10, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - Social media posts of President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe huddling with aides in a public dining room in Florida after North Korea's latest missile test have raised questions about the Trump administration's handling of sensitive information.

The discussions - which would ordinarily take place behind closed doors and be highly classified - was captured on camera at close range by a member of Mr Trump's Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida on Saturday (Feb 11), Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported.

Mr Richard DeAgazio posted pictures on Facebook showing Mr Trump huddling with his aides and the visiting Japanese leader, and taking phone calls. The posts were later removed from Facebook, according to AFP.

It said one post that was deleted had this caption: "The President receiving the news about the Missile incident from North Korea on Japan with the Prime Minister sitting next to him."

Mr DeAgazio also reportedly wrote: "The Prime Minister Abe of Japan huddles with his staff and the President is on the phone with Washington DC. the two world leaders then conferred and then went into another room for hastily arranged press conference. Wow.....the center of the action!!!"

Aides were seen passing Mr Trump and Mr Abe bits of papers, lighting them up with their mobile phones so that the two leaders could read.

The US president seemed to be aware at one point that he was being photographed. The Guardian published a photo by Ms Erika Bain showing Mr Trump smiling at the camera, while Mr Abe was getting up from his seat and aides were huddling behind them.

During his presidential campaigning last year, Mr Trump had repeatedly accused his Democrat opponent Hillary Clinton of jeopardising national security when she was secretary of state by maintaining a private e-mail server through which some classified material flowed.

Under Mr Trump's presidency, however, operational security has taken a backseat, the Guardian reported. He has held on to his unsecured Android phone, from which he tweeted when he was about to sit down for dinner with Mr Abe at the Mar-a-Lago club.

When a US president is away from the White House, many crisis conversations take place in a "Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility" (SCIF), according to AFP. The facilities are normally out-of-bounds for individuals without security clearance and common digital devices such as unsecured mobile phones.

The White House, in response to the security concerns, said Mr Trump was briefed in such a room "prior to dinner" and that no sensitive information was shared at the table.

"There is no one in that picture around him or whatever that isn't part of the US delegation or the Japanese delegation, they were reviewing the logistics for the press conference," said White House spokesman Sean Spicer. "The president was subsequently briefed again in a classified setting, after the dinner, before they went out and spoke."

But the Democrats were fuming, and quick to recall Mr Trump's criticism of Mrs Clinton's use of private e-mail server.

"There's no excuse for letting an international crisis play out in front of a bunch of country club members like dinner theatre," said the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi.

The Guardian quoted Ms Julianne Smith, who was deputy national security adviser to former Vice-President Joe Biden, as saying: "I don't think this team has any appreciation about the vulnerabilities they are creating for themselves and how dangerous this is," said Ms Smith, who is now Director of the Strategy and Statecraft Program at the Centre for a New American Security.

She added that it was unclear what security arrangements have been made at Mar-a-Lago club. CNBC reported that any such security protocols would not have applied to the terrace of the club, which was full of members who pay a US$200,000 (S$284,380) initiation fee, which was double what it was before Mr Trump became president.

Ms Smith said it was up to Mr Trump's national security adviser Michael Flynn to press better security precautions on the president.

But Mr Flynn himself is facing criticisms after being caught by US intelligence agencies for talking to the Russian ambassador in December about the sanctions that the Obama administration was about to impose on Moscow.