White House press secretary Sean Spicer said on Tuesday that President Donald Trump was briefed in a secure location about North Korea’s recent missile test before he had dinner with Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe on Saturday.
When asked by a local Florida reporter about photos taken during the dinner that appeared to show Trump and Abe being briefed on the incident in front of Mar-a-Lago members, Spicer replied that the leaders “were only talking about the logistics of the press conference” in those photos.
“There is a SCIF at Mar-a-Lago,” Spicer said, using an acronym for Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. That is where presidents are typically briefed on sensitive and classified intelligence when they are away from the White House Situation Room.
Democratic Sen. Tom Udall tweeted on Monday that he and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse had asked the White House two weeks ago for information on how it “screened Mar-a-Lago guests to prevent security risks.”
“We heard nothing back,” Udall said, posting a photo of the letter he sent to the president on February 3.
On Sunday night, a paying member of Mar-A-Lago, Trump’s club in Palm Beach, Florida, uploaded photos to Facebook of Trump and Abe surrounded by aides holding cell phone flashlights up to various documents.
“HOLY MOLY !!!” the member, Richard DeAgazio, wrote in a caption for the photo album. “It was fascinating to watch the flurry of activity at dinner when the news came that North Korea had launched a missile in the direction of Japan. The Prime Minister Abe of Japan huddles with his staff and the president is on the phone with Washington DC. The two world leaders then conferred and then went into another room for hastily arranged press conference. Wow…..the center of the action!!!”
Reached by The Washington Post on Monday, DeAgazio said the fact that Trump chose to stay outside for his meeting with Abe, “with the members,” shows “he’s a man of the people.” DeAgazio insisted, however, that he couldn’t hear anything that was discussed between the leaders and their aides.
The photos irked national security experts, however, who felt it sent a damaging signal to foreign countries about Trump’s approach to sensitive national security issues.
“It’s likely to increase dinner reservation bookings at Mar-a-Lago by foreign intelligence agencies,” said Stephen Biddle, adjunct Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“During the Cold War, intelligence agencies went to elaborate lengths to plant bugs in places where less senior officials than the President were likely to hold conversations,” Biddle said. “So we can expect that they will take advantage of the much easier job of keeping eavesdroppers within range of the Presidential table in settings like this if the President insists on holding policy discussions in such places.”