Canadian politicians were well within earshot as political bombshells this week exploded all over Washington. Just as news broke that U.S. President Donald Trump had shared classified information with the Russian government, two federal cabinet ministers arrived for dinner at the State Department.
Chrystia Freeland and Harjit Sajjan dined with their U.S. counterparts for foreign affairs and defence – Rex Tillerson and James Mattis. They got there just before the news upended Washington, and early enough that it wasn’t a hot dinner discussion topic.
“That story had not yet broken (when we got there),” Freeland said in an interview.
But she hints it will be discussed further.
Freeland kept to herself her thoughts on the news; whether she’d heard anything from the Americans about it; and whether Canada might have some concerns about intelligence-sharing with the Trump administration.
“You will appreciate it’s a really sensitive area. I don’t have information I’m at liberty to share,” Freeland said. But she added that she had previously scheduled chats lined up in the coming days with other foreign ministers: “I do have some conversations with some other partners set up later this week.”
She made the remarks after a two-day Washington visit where she met numerous lawmakers and administration officials – one of them being the newly sworn in U.S. trade czar, Robert Lighthizer, who will play a role in the renegotiation of NAFTA.
It was his first meeting with a foreign official – he’d just taken office the previous day. Freeland said she expects the administration to send its notice soon announcing the upcoming renegotiation of NAFTA.
Few others in Washington had trade on their mind this week.
The latest political thunderclap echoed late Tuesday with multiple media outlets reporting that the president had intervened in an FBI probe of his former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Reports say before firing James Comey, Trump told him to lay off the investigation.
Several Republicans expressed concern Tuesday about this drama-a-day White House. In a single week, Trump fired the FBI director, told different stories about why, became the target of a congressional investigation that’s expanding into money-laundering, shared intelligence with Russia, offered shifting explanations for the latter, and then wound up being accused of wading into a police investigation.
The administration initially discounted the details of reports in the Washington Post, New York Times, Buzzfeed and elsewhere that the president gave the Russians a detail about terrorist bomb-making that might help it identify U.S. sources in the Middle East.
But the president admitted the basic details on Twitter – and he said it was no big deal.
“As President I wanted to share with Russia … which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety,” he tweeted Tuesday. What’s most important, the president said, is that authorities “find the leakers in the intelligence community.”
The latest drama has rattled already shaky confidence in the president in Washington.
Top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell told Bloomberg: “I think we can do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things so that we can focus on our agenda.”
Republican lawmaker Mike Gallagher, a former U.S. Marine who served in Iraq, asked to see the transcript of Trump’s conversation with the Russians. His colleague Barbara Comstock called the reports “highly troubling” and demanded classified briefings. Sen. Susan Collins said the release of the information had the potential to “jeopardize sources and to discourage our allies from sharing future information vital to our security.”
Different news reports said the original information came from Israeli intelligence. It’s unclear whether the U.S. informed the Israelis it might share the information with the Russians, who have different allies in the region – notably Iran.
The Israelis said they had full confidence in the intelligence-sharing relationship with the U.S., contradicting reports earlier this year that the Israelis had considered withholding secrets from Trump, at the urging of American colleagues worried about their own boss.
Trump’s national security adviser also insisted Tuesday the story was no big deal. He was in the room last week when the president shared the information with Russia’s foreign minister and U.S. ambassador at the White House.
He did not dispute the accuracy of the details – as the administration appeared to do the previous day.
“What I’m saying is really the premise of that article is false, that in any way the president had a conversation that was inappropriate or that resulted in any kind of lapse in – in national security,” H.R. McMaster told a White House briefing.
“And so I think the real issue, and I think what I’d like to see really debated more, is that our national security has been put at risk by those violating confidentiality, and those releasing information to the press that – that could be used, connected with other information available, to make American citizens and others more vulnerable…
“That conversation was wholly appropriate to the conversation.”
A rare Democratic senator who’s been friendly with Trump offered some advice: be more careful. Joe Manchin of West Virginia said he doesn’t even tell his own staff and colleagues things he hears on the Senate intelligence committee.
That’s especially true for an adversary like Russia, he said.
“I take that (need to preserve secrets) very seriously. If I breach that, I know I’ll be thrown off the committee and maybe even more,” he told the MSNBC show, “Morning Joe.”
“We have allies around the world, trusted allies. We have our best trading partner in the world in Canada – with 35 states being No. 1. You have basically our ally the UK who has been with us in all the wars that we’ve been involved in… And you have one of our greatest friends and allies in Israel. So we have good friends, good allies, good people.
“Russia is not one of them. They do not have our best interest at heart.”