WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump on Wednesday dismissed as “Fake News” allegations that Russia offered bounties for killing American troops in Afghanistan. He said news stories about the allegations were made up to “damage me and the Republican Party.”
Lawmakers have been demanding answers over the allegations, and Democrats have accused Trump of bowing to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the risk of US soldiers’ lives.
Trump tweeted on Wednesday that he had not been briefed on intelligence assessments that Russia offered bounties because there wasn’t corroborating evidence. Those intelligence assessments were first reported by The New York Times, then confirmed to The Associated Press by American intelligence officials and others with knowledge of the matter.
“The Russia Bounty story is just another made up by Fake News tale that is told only to damage me and the Republican Party,” Trump tweeted. “The secret source probably does not even exist, just like the story itself.”
The Russia Bounty story is just another made up by Fake News tale that is told only to damage me and the Republican… https://t.co/x2I35nc8Aq
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) 1593601761000
The President’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, said the intelligence wasn’t brought to the President’s attention initially because it was unverified and there was no consensus among the intelligence community.
O’Brien insisted that the CIA and Pentagon did pursue the lead and briefed international allies. But he echoed the recent White House talking point faulting not Russia but government leakers and the media for making the matter public.
He told “Fox & Friends” that he had prepared a list of retaliatory options for Trump if the intelligence was corroborated.
“We had options ready to go,” said O’Brien. “It may be impossible to get to the bottom of it.”
Trump has been under pressure from lawmakers on Capitol Hill to address the reports.
Majority leader Steny Hoyer and a small group of other House Democrats met with White House officials as Trump downplayed the allegations. The Democrats questioned why Trump wouldn’t have been briefed sooner and pushed White House officials to have the President make a strong statement about the matter.
House intelligence committee chairman Adam Schiff, one of the Democrats who attended the briefing, said it was “inexplicable” why Trump won’t say publicly that he is working to get to the bottom of the issue and why he won’t call out Putin. He said Trump’s defence that he hadn’t been briefed was inexcusable.
“Many of us do not understand his affinity for that autocratic ruler who means our nation ill,” Schiff said.
Rep Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., a freshman and former Navy helicopter pilot and Russia policy officer, said White House chief of staff Mark Meadows briefed the group. She said the Democrats told the White House briefers that the President should make a statement.
“These are very concerning allegations and if they’re true, Russia is going to face repercussions,” Sherrill said. “We really pushed that strongly in the meeting.”
She wouldn’t say how the White House officials reacted or say if the briefers told the Democrats that in fact Trump had been briefed.
Senate Republicans largely defended the President, arguing along with the White House that the intelligence was unverified.
But that’s a high bar – it’s rare for intelligence to be confirmed without a shadow of doubt before it is presented to senior government decision-makers.
Some House Republicans who were briefed by the White House on Monday also said they left with questions.
Texas Rep Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the armed services committee, said the panel would “leave no stone unturned” in seeking further information. Rep Liz Cheney of Wyoming insisted there would be “ramifications” for any targeting of Americans.
The White House was working to schedule a briefing for Wednesday with Senate majority leader McConnell, house speaker Nancy Pelosi and the top Republicans and Democrats on the two intelligence committees according to a person familiar with the talks. The person declined to be identified because the so-called Gang of 8 briefing will be classified. That group receives the most sensitive information in regular meetings with administration officials.
A separate group of Senate Republicans briefed in the White House Situation Room on Tuesday appeared mostly satisfied with the answers they received. Senate armed services chairman Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma said he was “convinced” Trump hadn’t known about the intelligence. Wisconsin Sen Ron Johnson, chairman of the homeland security and governmental affairs committee, said Trump “can’t be made aware of every piece of unverified intelligence.”
While Russian meddling in Afghanistan isn’t new, officials said Russian operatives became more aggressive in their desire to contract with the Taliban and members of the Haqqani Network, a militant group aligned with the Taliban in Afghanistan and designated a foreign terrorist organization in 2012.
The intelligence community has been investigating an April 2019 attack on an American convoy that killed three US Marines after a car rigged with explosives detonated near their armored vehicles as they traveled back to Bagram Airfield, the largest US military installation in Afghanistan, officials told AP.
Three other US service members were wounded in the attack, along with an Afghan contractor. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. The officials the AP spoke to also said they were looking closely at insider attacks – sometimes called “green-on-blue” attacks – from 2019 to determine if they are also linked to Russian bounties.
One official said the administration discussed several potential responses, but the White House has yet to authorize any.
Intelligence officials told the AP that the White House first became aware of alleged Russian bounties in early 2019 – a year earlier than had been previously reported. The assessments were included in one of Trump’s written daily briefings at the time, and then-national security adviser John Bolton told colleagues he had briefed Trump on the matter. Bolton declined to comment on that matter, and the White House did not respond to questions.
The intelligence officials and others with knowledge of the matter insisted on anonymity to discuss the highly sensitive matter.