Sen. Roy Blunt, a fiercely loyal Republican and consistent defender of President Donald Trump, on Tuesday abruptly broke with the White House to sharply criticize the president’s sharing intelligence with Russian officials.
“One of the key principles of protecting sources and methods is to never share the information you get from those sources,” Blunt said in a statement.
Without mentioning the president directly, Blunt said he learned as a member of both the House and Senate intelligence committees that sharing secret information could enable adversaries to figure out how this country got that information.
When asked in an interview later Tuesday if the president could be trusted with classified information, Blunt answered only, “The president has to have access to all the classified information and he’ll continue to, I’m sure.”
Blunt, a Missouri Republican, serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee and on the Senate GOP leadership team. He won re-election narrowly in November in a state that Trump carried by double digits and has voted with the president 100 percent of the time since January, according to a vote tracker from the website FiveThirtyEight.
His comments Tuesday, while characteristically reserved, mark a shift in tone from his enthusiastic support for Trump’s decision last week to fire FBI Director James Comey amid an ongoing investigation into links between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia.
“Many, including myself, have questioned his (Comey’s) actions more than once over the past year. I believe new leadership at the FBI will restore confidence in the organization and among the people who do the hard work to carry out its mission,” Blunt said at the time.
In a conversation with a small group of reporters who followed him out of the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, Blunt said that he still supports Trump’s firing of Comey.
He said his written statement “was just a more realistic view of how important it is to understand how closely some of this (classified) information has to be held and why.”
A reporter remarked that that seemed like a fundamental matter for a president to understand.
Blunt was silent for a moment.
“I think the president is uniquely positioned to bring change to a system that people think needs to change,” he said.
When reporters pressed him on what it would take for congressional Republicans to pull their support from Trump, Blunt said he wouldn’t answer such a hypothetical question.
“It’s a hypothetical question that I think shouldn’t be asked and shouldn’t be answered,” he said.
The Washington Post first reported Monday that Trump revealed classified information at a meeting last week with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister, potentially jeopardizing the source of the intelligence, which came from an ally.
Blunt’s criticism of Trump on Tuesday coincided with a subtle but noticeable shift among some other Republican senators, who were more openly exasperated by the president than they have been in the past.
Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican known for his cautious approach to politics, issued a statement that said Trump’s actions “damage and distract from the important work the American people have entrusted their leaders to accomplish.”
He added, “The president and his administration must protect our national security by making certain sensitive information does not fall into the wrong hands.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican and a longtime Trump ally, paused for a few seconds when asked by reporters Tuesday whether Trump could be trusted with classified information.
Backing away from a crowd of reporters, Corker gave a shrug. “Sure.”
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois said he senses from “very private” conversations that some of his Republican colleagues are beginning to crack, fatigued and frustrated by the constant chaos coming from the White House.
“What history tells us is that there will be a few who break away, and as they break away, others will summon the courage to join them,” Durbin said.
Blunt told reporters Tuesday that he still doesn’t think there’s any need for an independent special prosecutor to investigate the Trump campaign’s ties to the Russians. The president’s reported discussion of classified information with the Russians didn’t change his opinion, he said.
“No. No, matter of fact I think the intelligence committee is the best committee to deal with this and any other effort will just simply slow down the opportunity to get and share information on this,” Blunt said. “And I think we’re well on our way to doing that.”
Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican and former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, urged caution Tuesday.
“The facts are not all in regarding President Trump’s conversations with the Russian ambassador,” Roberts said in a statement. “To continue to discuss these serious allegations without direct knowledge of the facts at hand may risk intelligence sources and methods.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who has repeatedly called for a special prosecutor, said that lawmakers need more information on what was said during the conversation, which she warned could have endangered U.S. troops.
“Getting intelligence on the activities of the Islamic State is essential to our national security and to the safety of Missouri’s families. And jeopardizing our allies and sources who are assisting us in this war against these terrorists is a grave error,” McCaskill said in a statement.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat and vocal critic of Trump, called for a congressional briefing on what information the president provided to Russia.
“This report that President Trump may have provided highly classified information to senior Russian officials is beyond disturbing. Congress must immediately be briefed on what, if anything, was provided to Russian senior officials, and whether it could impact the national security interest of the United States,” Cleaver said. “… It’s past time for an independent commission.”
Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas, an Overland Park Republican, called for hearings on the latest Trump developments.
“Congress must be resolute in conducting bipartisan hearings to get to the bottom of these matters,” he said. “The American people deserve to know the facts.”