Trump tweets that Russia bounty allegations are 'Fake News'
WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 U.S. soldiers' lives.
Trump tweeted 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 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. 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.
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.
A group of House Democrats who were briefed at the White House on Tuesday questioned why Trump wouldn't have been briefed sooner and pushed White House officials to have the president make a strong statement.
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 defense 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 of Trump and Putin.
Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., a freshman and former Navy helicopter pilot and Russia policy officer, 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.”
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.
But a group of Senate Republicans who received their own briefing largely defended the president, arguing along with the White House that the intelligence was unverified. 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.”
The White House was working to schedule a briefing with the so-called Gang of 8 in Congress — Senate Majority Leader McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the top Republicans and Democrats on the two intelligence committees. The meeting could happen as soon as Thursday, according to people familiar with the scheduling who spoke on condition of anonymity because the information hasn't been released publicly.
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 U.S. Marines after a car rigged with explosives detonated near their armored vehicles as they traveled back to Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military installation in Afghanistan, officials told the AP.
Three other U.S. 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.
Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro, Alan Fram, and Deb Riechmann in Washington and Jonathan Lemire in Mystic, Conn. contributed to this report.