The White House confronted Tuesday what could be the most serious allegation to date against President Trump amid reports that in February he asked the FBI director, James B. Comey, to drop an investigation of the president's former national security adviser.
Comey, whom Trump fired last week, had written a memo of his Oval Office encounter, which occurred a day after national security adviser Michael Flynn had resigned under pressure. The memo was first reported by The New York Times and was confirmed to the Los Angeles Times.
The White House denied that Trump asked Comey to close the investigation of Flynn's ties to Russia.
The latest report on the Trump-Comey meeting in February raised potentially serious questions about presidential interference in a criminal matter. It broke just hours after Trump responded to another Russia-related controversy that erupted on Monday.
In tweets Tuesday morning about Monday's media reports that he shared sensitive information with two Russian diplomats, Trump wrote that he had an "absolute right" to do so as president. But in making his case, Trump confirmed the reports' central contention that he had divulged details of an Islamic State plot in the Oval Office meeting with the Russians last week — an acknowledgment that conflicted with his advisers' carefully crafted denials.
The White House was hit by the back-to-back controversies even as it remained in damage control over last week's unexpected firing of Comey. Trump, contradicting his spokespersons, has said that when he sacked the FBI director he was thinking about "the Russia thing." The bureau since last summer has been investigating Russia's meddling in the 2016 election and potential collusion by the Trump campaign — an investigation that Trump days ago decried as a waste of taxpayers' money.
The new report on Trump's February meeting with Comey about the related Flynn probe added to the already intense scrutiny over the president's recent decision to fire Comey, raising the legal and political stakes for the administration. Democrats immediately stepped up calls for congressional investigations as well as for a special prosecutor to get to the bottom of the assorted matters linked to ties between Trump associates and Russia..
Trump aides began Tuesday by struggling to reconcile their earlier denials that Trump had disclosed classified information to the Russian officials, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, with the president's own acknowledgment that he'd done so.
"It is wholly appropriate for the president to share whatever information he thinks is to the advancement of the security of the American people," national security adviser H.R. McMaster told reporters.
Trump himself, in brief comments during an appearance with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, suggested that his "very, very successful meeting" with the Russians had been intended to enlist their help in battling the Islamic State in Syria. To date, however, Russia's military efforts in Syria have been in support of the ruling Assad regime and against Syrian rebels fighting it, not in alliance with the U.S.-backed campaign against the Islamic State.
"We had a very, very successful meeting with the foreign minister of Russia," Trump said. "Our fight is against ISIS."
Administration officials sought to turn reporters' attention to the leaks about Trump's interactions with the Russians, as well as past leaks about the president's conversations with foreign officials. Press secretary Sean Spicer described them as a danger to national security.
Members of Congress in both parties, meanwhile, grew increasingly impatient with the White House responses to the controversies piling up. With work on Trump's legislative agenda all but halted, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said in a television interview, "We could do with a little less drama from the White House."
Rep. Andy Harris, a Baltimore County Republican, said that Trump's private-sector experience would inevitably lead to a "certain lack of familiarity with obscure government regulations and customs." While the FBI director serves at the pleasure of the president, Harris said, he is not always accountable to the president.
"While President Trump's request to Jim Comey may have been improper in context, I do not believe it was made with malicious intent," Harris said in a statement. "With every new presidential administration comes a learning curve, and I believe President Trump has grown into his office over the last four months, while maintaining his goal to drain the swamp."
Maryland Democrats pounced on the latest report. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called the allegation "explosive" and said it appeared to be "a textbook case of criminal obstruction of justice."
Cummings said that when Comey announced last summer that there would be no charges filed against Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, Republicans on the committee brought the then FBI director in to testify within 48 hours. "We should do exactly the same here," he said.
Later Tuesday, all 33 Democratic members of the oversight committee and the House Judiciary Committee signed a letter calling for a joint investigation into whether White House aides "are engaged in an ongoing conspiracy to obstruct the criminal, counter-intelligence, and oversight investigations" being conducted by the FBI.
Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described the report as the "most explosive evidence to date that the president attempted to obstruct the investigation into his associates' connections to Russia."
"It is time for Republican leadership in Congress to publicly acknowledge how dangerous the president's actions and rhetoric are to American rule of law — the very foundation of our nation," Cardin said in a statement.
Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the Republican chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, suggested that White House officials had failed to respond to his requests for clarification about the Trump meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak last week in the Oval Office. "I want to talk to people who were in the room. I'd like to think somebody from the White House who was in the room is going to get on the phone and tell me what they said," Burr told the Associated Press. "I've been trying to get it [phone call] all morning. Maybe they're busy."
McMaster said that Trump's disclosure to the Russians was impromptu, not the sort of scripted talking point more typical of such diplomatic exchanges. He said the president was unaware of the source of the intelligence he shared, which, as McMaster confirmed, involved an Islamic State plot to use laptop computers as explosive devices aboard commercial aircraft.
On Tuesday, The New York Times and other news organizations reported that Israel was the source of the intelligence of a laptop plot. The information was not to be widely shared even with the U.S. government, according to reports, and its disclosure threatened to complicate the United States' intelligence-sharing with foreign allies increasingly wary of Trump's indiscipline.
The White House refused to comment on whether Israel was the source. Nonetheless, the reports further complicated prospects for Trump's forthcoming foreign trip, his first as president. Israel, the United States' closest ally in the Middle East, is one of Trump's stops, after Saudi Arabia and before going on to Europe.
"He has to exercise more discipline." said Andrew Card, former chief of staff to George W. Bush, on MSNBC. "Taste your words before you spit them out," Card added, as if advising Trump directly. "Show more respect to that bureaucracy that exists, not just in the White House but throughout the executive branch."
McMaster also confirmed reports that after Trump's meetings with the two Russians, the president's counter-terrorism adviser, Thomas Bossert, was concerned enough by the president's disclosure to alert the National Security Agency and the CIA — "maybe from an overabundance of precaution," McMaster said.
Baltimore Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this report.