White House chief of staff John Kelly is furious over the leak of briefing materials prepared for President Donald Trump’s call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a White House official told POLITICO on Wednesday, as the West Wing faced another wave of damaging news coverage following the revelation.
Trump was instructed in briefing materials “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” before his call with the recently re-elected Putin, but congratulated him anyway, according to the Washington Post’s report on Tuesday night. He also ignored a recommendation to condemn the recent poisoning of a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom, which the Kremlin has been accused of orchestrating, according to the report.
It’s not clear, however, if Trump read the briefing notes instructing him to not congratulate Putin.
Still, White House aides were reeling about the fact that the briefing materials were leaked, and were left wondering who would provide such sensitive information to reporters, the official said.
The results of the Russian election were largely pre-ordained, according to international experts, but the White House declined to say on Tuesday whether it considered the election “free and fair.”
“We’re focused on our elections,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. “We don’t get to dictate how other countries operate. What we do know is that Putin has been elected in their country, and that’s not something that we can dictate to them how they operate.”
Sanders also said Trump did not discuss the U.K. poisoning.
The declaration regarding Russia’s election startled many observers and, coupled with Trump’s congratulatory call, drew widespread criticism, including from his own party.
In a statement, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Tuesday dismissed the election as a “sham” and said Trump “insulted every Russian citizen who was denied the right to vote in a free and fair election to determine their country's future, including the countless Russian patriots who have risked so much to protest and resist Putin's regime.”
The leak, demonstrating Trump ignored advisers’ call to avoid congratulating the Russian strongman and to address the poisoning, only deepened the controversy. Trump has long been loathe to criticize Putin or Russia.
Special counsel Robert Mueller is currently leading an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and whether the Trump campaign colluded in the effort. The intelligence community has concluded Russia interfered to aid Trump, but Trump has repeatedly insisted there was “no collusion” and has expressed deepening frustration with the ongoing investigation, which has led to a number of indictments of close Trump associates.
The episode also raised the broader issue of leaks, a subject that has animated Trump since he took office. Trump insisted early last year that senior White House officials sign non-disclosure agreements, according to two former senior administration officials, and after some resistance officials agreed, concluding the agreements would not be enforceable anyway.
White House spokesperson Hogan Gidley declined to discuss NDAs in detail earlier this week, but he said he had never been asked to sign one and had not signed one.
Other prominent Republicans also slammed the leak of the Putin briefing materials.
“Who leaks this stuff?” wrote former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer on Twitter. “This WH still is disloyal to the president and to each other. What a mess.”
“I don’t agree with congratulating #Putin but bigger outrage is this leak that could only come from someone in @POTUS inner circle,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) wrote on Twitter. “If you don’t like President resign, but this ongoing pattern of duplicity holds potential for serious damage to the nation.”