Oval Office meeting that spiralled into White House crisis

President Donald Trump on the South Lawn of the White House after returning from commencement ceremonies at the US Coast Guard Academy on Wednesday (May 17).
President Donald Trump on the South Lawn of the White House after returning from commencement ceremonies at the US Coast Guard Academy on Wednesday (May 17). PHOTO: NYTIMES

Britain's Guardian newspaper yesterday traced how US President Donald Trump's meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sparked a crisis in the White House. The daily said it began with a trip to Moscow by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

WASHINGTON • US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's visit to Moscow, the first by a senior Trump administration official to the Russian capital, was weighed down with baggage. Like his President, Mr Tillerson was under scrutiny for his past ties to Russia.

As the CEO of ExxonMobil, Mr Tillerson had extensive dealings with the Kremlin, including with President Vladimir Putin, who had personally awarded him Russia's Order of Friendship. But ever since he took office, the anticipated "reset" with Moscow had failed to happen.

Sanctions had not been lifted, and six days before Mr Tillerson arrived, on April 6, the US had launched a missile strike on a Syrian air base, suspected of being the launch pad for a chemical weapons attack, and where Russian troops were stationed.

Though Mr Tillerson was granted an audience with Mr Putin only late in the day, the meeting was described by the Secretary of State as "productive" despite "a low level of trust between our two countries".

What that meeting did produce was an ill-fated reciprocal visit on May 10 by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. It would have been normal for a Russian foreign minister to meet the US President. But these were not normal times. The night before, Mr Trump had fired Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey, at a time when the bureau was investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

Having the first public meeting, within hours of such an extraordinary move, with a senior Russian official reflected a complete lack of concern of how it would look, irrespective of its substance.

But US officials pointed to Mr Tillerson's Kremlin meeting and the need for reciprocity. But that did not explain the presence of Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, who had become a central figure in the Russia probe. His contacts with Mr Trump's first national security adviser Michael Flynn had ultimately led Mr Flynn to resign.

Mr Flynn's successor, General H.R. McMaster, his deputy Dina Powell and Mr Tillerson were also at the Oval Office meeting. US press were barred but not their Russian counterparts, it transpired.

Russian state agency Tass quickly posted pictures that have since become infamous, of Mr Trump, Mr Lavrov and Mr Kislyak smiling and apparently sharing jokes, at a time when Russia had been accused by US intelligence of interfering in last year's US election and the May 7 French presidential election as well. White House officials would later claim they did not know Mr Lavrov's official photographer was also working for Tass.

As soon as the pictures emerged, former intelligence officials raised concerns that Russians had been allowed into the Oval Office with electronic equipment, potentially making it vulnerable to bugs.

As it turned out, it was what Mr Trump voluntarily shared with the Russians that would cause the real storm.

On Monday evening, the Washington Post reported that Mr Trump had discussed highly secret information that had been provided by the intelligence agency of a US ally about an ISIS terrorist threat involving the use of laptop computers on aircraft.

For intelligence and counter-terrorist officials in the room, the disclosure immediately raised a bright red flag. The President's counter- terrorism adviser Tom Bossert quickly called the National Security Agency (NSA) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to alert them.

Gen McMaster and Mr Tillerson were sent out by the White House to rebut the report, insisting that Mr Trump did not "discuss sources, methods or military operations".

Reporters at the White House on Monday night reported hearing heated arguments behind closed doors as senior staff went into damage-control mode once more.

By Tuesday morning, however, Mr Trump made all the efforts at pushback by his staff utterly redundant with a pair of tweets just after 7am. "As President, I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled WH meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining... to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS and terrorism," he said.

The extraordinary confirmation of the report triggered a new round of moderation from the White House. Gen McMaster was sent out once more to face questions over how his denial of the story the night before squared with the President's admission.

It was the premise of the story that was false, he argued, because the President had a right to share what he wanted to, and his disclosures were "appropriate to the conversation".

Gen McMaster focused on the national security damage caused by the leaks, but in so doing he did not dispute key elements of the Washington Post story - the sharing of the information, the fact that it came from a foreign agency, the Bossert call to the NSA and CIA, and that Mr Trump disclosed the city in which the original intelligence had been collected, potentially putting a covert source at risk.

Once more, attempts by partially briefed and uneasy officials to put out the fire caused by Mr Trump's relationship with Moscow had added even more fuel.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 18, 2017, with the headline 'Oval Office meeting that spiralled into White House crisis'. Print Edition | Subscribe