Reporters Hunt for Records on Trump’s Classified Disclosure

In this file photo, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, center, listens to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, right back to the camera, during their talks in Moscow, Russia, on April 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Though the president has defended his disclosure of classified information to Russian diplomats, the gaffe is the subject of a new records battle in federal court.

The James Madison Project brought the complaint on June 22 along with two writers for The Daily Beast, Spencer Ackerman and Noah Shachtman.

Exactly a month earlier, the group filed requests under the Freedom of Information Act with various government agencies concerning President Donald Trump’s meeting with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak at the White House on May 10.

In addition to transcripts and notes on the meeting, the request sought any materials used to brief the president on the intelligence, including any documentation that identified the source of the intelligence, and any material memorializing any such briefing.

But the CIA and the Departments of Defense, Justice and State have failed to date to substantively respond to their requests, according to the 10-page complaint.

Mark Zaid, a national-security attorney who filed the complaint in Washington, said FOIA lawsuits against the Trump administration have taken on a different flavor than in previous administrations.

“It’s like one of all these other FOIA lawsuits that emanate from things Trump and his inner circle does or does not do, where most of the time I think what becomes the interesting issue is that there turns out to be no documents rather than documents existing,” Zaid said in a phone interview. “Because what happens is either things Trump says are completely false or he doesn’t understand what he’s talking about. Now in this particular case, [it’s] hard to say,” Zaid added.

Having worked in Washington since the Bill Clinton years, Zaid says that, rather than trying to secure documents, his FOIA lawsuits in the Trump era are more often trying to prove that no documents exist.

“This administration is far more about, there are no documents because this never happened, this never existed – we had no idea this was going to happen, we had no idea he was doing this,” Zaid said.

As reported by U.S. media, the president revealed details in his May 10 meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak about a terrorist threat involving the use of laptop computers on airplanes.

Trump admitted to the disclosures after coming under intense scrutiny in the ensuing days.

“As president I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety,” Trump said in a pair of tweets. “Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS and terrorism.”

National security adviser H.R. McMaster defended the president’s actions, calling it “wholly appropriate” for Trump to share the information. McMaster also insisted that Trump had not been briefed on the intelligence, and was unaware of the source of the intelligence, which U.S. media later reported was Israel.

In an ad hoc fashion, at the tail end of a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the president’s trip to Israel, Trump denied having mentioned Israel during the May 10 meeting.

“I never mentioned the word or the name Israel,” Trump had said.

Zaid’s clients tried to stave off the invocation of FOIA exemptions the agencies could use to withhold the information based on the administration’s public statements.

“The Requesters pre-emptively asserted that public remarks by President Trump and Mr. McMaster constituted prior official disclosure of at least three facts: (a) President Trump shared classified information in the May 10, 2017, meeting; (b) President Trump did not mention during the May 10, 2017, meeting that Israel was the original source of the information; and (c) the briefing in which President Trump was informed of the information did not mention the identity of the country that had originally collected the information,” the complaint states.

Attorney Zaid said that in the wake of the Trump disclosure he would normally expect internal discussions among federal agencies about how to limit the damage.

But that rule seems not to apply to the Trump administration.

“The one thing I have absolutely learned so far in this administration is what you think, where you think there would be coordination between the agencies and the administration, there is not,” Zaid said.

The Department of State declined to comment on the pending litigation. The CIA and Departments of Justice and Defense did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

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