Donald Trump’s entanglements with Russia date back to the 1980s but the immediate origins of the latest White House crisis lie in a trip secretary of state Rex Tillerson made just over a month ago to Moscow.
It was the first visit by a senior Trump administration official to the Russian capital and it was weighed down with baggage. Like his president, Tillerson was under scrutiny for his past ties to the Russian government.
As the CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson had extensive dealings with the Kremlin, including with Vladimir Putin, who had personally awarded him Russia’s Order of Friendship. But since taking office, the anticipated “reset” with Moscow had failed to happen.
Sanctions had not been lifted, and six days before Tillerson arrived, on 6 April, the US had carried out a missile strike on a Syrian air base, suspected of being the launching pad for a chemical weapons attack, and where Russian troops were stationed.
As usual, the Kremlin left it until the last moment before confirming that Tillerson would be granted an audience with Putin, but the meeting – which took place late in the day – 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 by Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister to the White House, on 10 May. Lavrov had not been in Washington for four years, since before US-imposed sanctions for Russian annexation of Crimea and covert military action in eastern Ukraine.
It would have been normal for a Russian foreign minister to meet the US president. Lavrov had previously met Barack Obama at the White House. But these were not normal times. The night before, Trump had fired James Comey, the FBI director, 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 the Tillerson meeting in the Kremlin and the need for reciprocity. That did not explain, however, the presence of the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, who had become a central figure in the Russia investigation. His contacts with Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, had ultimately led to Flynn’s resignation.
Flynn’s successor, HR McMaster, his deputy, Dina Powell, and Tillerson were also at the Oval Office meeting. US press were barred but not their Russian counterparts, it transpired. The Russian state agency Tass quickly posted pictures that have since become infamous, of Trump, Lavrov and Kislyak smiling and apparently sharing jokes, at a time when Russia had been accused by US intelligence of interfering in the US election, and – a few days before the White House meeting – the French presidential election too. White House officials would later claim they had been misled by the Russian delegation and they did not know that 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 the president voluntarily shared with the Russians that would cause the real storm.
On Monday evening, the Washington Post reported that Trump had discussed highly secret information that had been provided by the intelligence agency of a US ally about an Islamic State (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 NSA and CIA to alert them, acting, McMaster said, out of “an abundance of caution”.
Both McMaster and Tillerson were sent out by the White House to rebut the report, insisting that the president 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, 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 & terrorism,” the president said.
The extraordinary confirmation of the report triggered a new round of moderation from the White House. 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”. 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 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 Trump’s relationship with Moscow, had added even more fuel.