Trump told Russian officials in 2017 he wasn’t concerned about Moscow’s interference in U.S. election
WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump told two senior Russian officials in a 2017 Oval Office meeting that he was unconcerned about Moscow’s interference in the U.S. election because the United States did the same in other countries, an assertion that prompted alarmed White House officials to limit access to the remarks to an unusually small number of people, according to three former officials with knowledge of the matter.
The comments, which have not been previously reported, were part of a now-infamous meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, in which Trump revealed highly classified information that exposed a source of intelligence on the Islamic State. He also said during the meeting that firing FBI Director James Comey the previous day had relieved “great pressure” on him.
A memorandum summarizing the meeting was limited to all but a few officials with the highest security clearances in an attempt to keep the president’s comments from being disclosed publicly, according to the former officials, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
The White House’s classification of records about Trump’s communications with foreign officials is now a central part of the impeachment inquiry launched this week by House Democrats. An intelligence community whistleblower has alleged that the White House placed a record of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president, in which he offered U.S. assistance investigating his political opponents, into a code-word classified system reserved for the most sensitive intelligence information.
The White House did not provide a comment Friday.
It is not clear if a memo documenting the May 10, 2017, meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak was placed into that system, but the three former officials said it was restricted to a very small number of people. At the time, the White House had recently begun limiting the records of Trump’s calls after remarks he made to the leaders of Mexico and Australia appeared in news reports. The Lavrov memo was restricted to an even smaller group, the former officials said.
A fourth former official, who did not recall the president’s remarks to the Russian officials, said that memos were restricted only to people who needed to know their contents.
“It was more about learning how can we restrict this in a way that still informs the policy process and the principals who need to engage with these heads of state,” the fourth former official said.
But the three former officials with knowledge of the remarks said some memos of the president’s communications were kept from people who might ordinarily have access to them. The Lavrov memo fit that description, they said.
White House officials were particularly distressed by Trump’s election remarks because it appeared the president was forgiving Russia for an attack that had been designed to help elect him, the three former officials said. Trump also seemed to invite Russia to interfere in other countries’ elections, they said.
The previous day, Trump had fired Comey amid the FBI’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign had coordinated with Russia. White House aides worried about the political ramifications if Trump’s comments to the Russian officials became public.
Trump had publicly ridiculed the Russia investigation as politically motivated and said he doubted that Moscow had intervened in the election. By the time he met with Lavrov and Kislyak, Trump had been briefed by the most senior U.S. intelligence officials about the Russian operation, which was directed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and included the theft and publication of Democratic emails and the seeded of propaganda in social-media, according to the findings of the U.S. intelligence community.