Washington : The tempest over President Donald Trump’s congratulatory phone call to Vladimir Putin quickly grew on Thursday into an uproar over White House leaks, sparking an internal investigation and speculation over who might be the next person Trump forces out of the West Wing.
The White House said in a statement it would be a “fireable offense and likely illegal” to leak Trump’s briefing papers to the press, after word emerged that the president had been warned in briefing materials to refrain from congratulating the Russian president on his re-election. Trump he did so anyway during a conversation on Wednesday.
Aides had included guidance in Trump’s talking points for the call to Putin stating: “DO NOT CONGRATULATE,” a senior administration official said Wednesday, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the official had not been authorised to discuss internal matters. The document had been accessible only to a select group of aides, two officials said, reports AP.
They also said there now is an internal probe of leak but provided no other details. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations. The White House is not formally acknowledging the veracity of the presidential guidance first reported by The Washington Post.
The statement on Thursday about a possible firing was an unusual threat by the White House. Other leaks of classified material, including partial transcripts of Trump’s calls with foreign leaders, have not garnered specific warnings of termination or criminal action.
It was not clear whether the document in question was classified, but it was included with other classified papers. It also was unclear whether Trump, who prefers oral briefings, had read the talking points prepared by his national security team before Wednesday’s call. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster briefed the president in person before the conversation in the White House residence. The leak further cast doubt on McMaster’s longevity in the top foreign policy post: The guidance for Trump had been prepared by his staff. Trump has been moving toward replacing McMaster on the advice of Chief of Staff John Kelly and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, but has not settled on timing or a successor. Trump’s call of congratulations to Putin drew bruising criticism from members of his own party even before the revelation that he was advised against it.
“An American president does not lead the free world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections,” said Senator John McCain, R-Ariz, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee and has pressed the Trump administration to respond aggressively to Russia’s interference in the US. presidential election. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said Wednesday he wouldn’t comment specifically on Trump’s action, but he told CNN, “I think Putin’s a criminal. What he did in Georgia, what he did in Ukraine, what he did in the Baltics, in London…That’s a criminal activity. I wouldn’t have a conversation with a criminal.” The call was the latest indicator of Trump’s personal reluctance to publicly criticize Putin.
Russia has received global condemnation after Britain blamed Moscow for the recent nerve agent attack that sickened Sergei Skripal and his daughter. Russia has denied the accusation. Trump’s call came at a period of heightened tension after the White House imposed sanctions on Russia for its interference in the 2016 U.S. election and other “malicious cyberattacks.” Sanders insisted that the administration has scolded Putin at the appropriate times.