Confusion at the upper levels of US government was on display Monday as the White House scrambled to respond to a report that President Donald Trump disclosed highly classified information to Russian officials last week.
The White House issued a statement from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson after the publication of a Washington Post report saying that Trump had revealed highly sensitive intelligence to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak in the course of a conversation about ISIS.
The only issue: State Department officials had no idea the statement had come out, learning about it only from CNN.
It was more than 20 minutes later before Tillerson’s agency released the same terse 44-word statement that echoed the phrasing other administration officials are using to try to shoot down the Post report.
“During President Trump’s meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov a broad range of subjects were discussed among which were common efforts and threats regarding counter-terrorism,” said the release, attributed to Tillerson. “During that exchange, the nature of specific threats were discussed, but they did not discuss sources, methods or military operations.”
Senior State Department officials, speaking anonymously to discuss internal agency business, call it “surprising” and “odd” that they, nor their colleagues, knew that the White House issued the statement.
One official said this left them “scrambling” to ascertain which of the countries might have been involved or affected.
Former State Department spokesman and CNN military and diplomatic analyst John Kirby said he was “stunned” by the way the agency was blindsided.
“I think it just speaks to a level of dysfunction at the State Department, in terms of at least the communications effort that I think is truly remarkable,” Kirby said.
“I can’t remember a single time – and I’ve worked for two secretaries of defense as well as the secretary of state – where the principal, a cabinet official, put out a public statement about something this big and this newsworthy where the communication staff and staff in general wasn’t aware, wasn’t tracking it, wasn’t helping edit it, wasn’t pushing it out,” Kirby added.
The Post report is attributed to unnamed current and former US officials and does not claim that Trump discussed methods or sources, but that he revealed sensitive information in the course of discussing an Islamic State threat.
CNN’s Saba Hamedy contributed to this report.