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Sen. Coons On Reports Trump Shared Classified Information With Russia

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The White House is again embroiled in another Russian debacle. This time, President Trump is being accused of revealing highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister at their meeting at the White House last week. The story was first reported by The Washington Post, and we should note NPR has yet to independently confirm the allegations.

The White House is rejecting the reports, and the president himself took to Twitter this morning. He wrote (reading) as president, I wanted to share with Russia - which I have the absolute right to do - facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety. I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS and terrorism.

Earlier, I spoke with Senator Chris Coons. He's a Democrat from Delaware. He sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Judiciary Committee. And I asked him what he makes of these reports.

CHRIS COONS: Well, these are very troubling allegations. If true, this story strongly suggests that President Trump doesn't understand the consequences of inappropriately sharing highly classified information with our adversary, Russia. And there's a lot of debate already about whether this was illegal or impeachable or simply inappropriate. But I think a main concern really ought to be how careless and ultimately dangerous it was.

President Trump is about to embark on a week-long trip to visit various allies and partners and countries around the world. We have to ask ourselves what country would share with us absolutely vital, secret information if they know they can't trust our president to keep it secret?

MARTIN: I want to get to what the White House is saying about this. They're pushing back hard. A national security adviser H. R. McMaster went before reporters yesterday. This is what he said.

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H R MCMASTER: The story that came out tonight as reported is false. The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation. At no time - at no time - were intelligence sources or methods discussed, and the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known. And I was in the room. It didn't happen.

MARTIN: Does this make these allegations less bad to you? Does this satisfy you?

COONS: That makes them no less bad to me, and it doesn't satisfy me. I'll remind you that this is the same White House that right after the firing of FBI Director James Comey offered a whole series of vigorously asserted justifications for why he was fired from Spokesman Sean Spicer all the way up to the vice president insisting that it was Rod Rosenstein's memo. And an internal review by the deputy attorney general that led to the president's decision right up until President Trump himself revealed in an interview on television that he had Comey because of this Russia thing - I think that was his phrase - and that he had been thinking of firing him all along since the election.

MARTIN: I want to get to what the president can and can't do in this issue in particular about the, perhaps, mishandling of this classified information if it is true. The president can decide what's classified and not right? There's nothing illegal about this. He can say something and then it's declassified.

COONS: That's my impression, Rachel, is that the president has very broad authority to make decisions about what's classified and unclassified. What I think has alarmed leaders in our intelligence community is the recklessness with which he was sharing this, the apparent desire on his part to boast to Russian leaders, the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a way that really would put at risk our close and confidential relationship with a key ally who has shared with us insights into ISIS that were essential - so essential that they were kept at the very highest level of classification.

MARTIN: I want to as about another issue - you mentioned it - the president's firing of FBI Director James Comey last week. Later this week, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein will brief all senators in a closed session. What do you plan to ask him?

COONS: Well, my hope is that Democratic senators will get answers from him about where the memo came from. What was the origin of the memo that the president received through the attorney general? It's very unusual in its structure. It's not a typical legal memo. It doesn't cite the rules and the practices and the procedures of the Department of Justice which FBI Director Comey is alleged to have broken. It's more of a political piece. It's more of an argument that one would make in front of a rally or a crowd about why the FBI director should be fired.

And it's important for us to understand whether or not Rod Rosenstein has allowed himself to be compromised and to become part of a reverse engineered justification for a decision made by the president or whether he followed a more appropriate role for a deputy attorney general and wrote an analysis which then went to the attorney general, the exact ends of which he didn't know when he wrote it.

MARTIN: Rosenstein has so far resisted calls for an independent prosecutor. Do you have confidence that he can do the job fairly at this point?

COONS: Well, that's, to me, the main point of our meeting with him this week is to see whether we can or should have confidence in his independence. He was confirmed by a very wide margin in the Senate because he had a well-deserved reputation for independence. This particular incident seriously undermines my confidence and that of many other senators in his independence. My concern about a special counsel is whether or not it would slow down an FBI investigation or shielded from political interference.

MARTIN: So you're not sold yet either.

COONS: I'm not sold yet.

MARTIN: Chris Coons is a Democratic senator from Delaware. Thanks so much for joining us, Senator.

COONS: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: We should say we've been reaching out to Republican members of both the House and Senate intelligence committees in Congress for comment on this story. So far, no one has agreed to our requests. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.