WASHINGTON – Criticized for inaction, President Donald Trump and top officials on Wednesday stepped up their defense of the administration's response to intelligence assessments that Russia offered bounties for killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Trump's national security adviser said he had prepared a list of retaliatory options if the intelligence proved true.
Trump, meanwhile, called the assessments a “hoax” and insisted anew he hadn't been briefed on them because the intelligence didn't rise to his level. However, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said both the CIA and Pentagon did pursue the leads and briefed international allies.
“We had options ready to go,” O’Brien said on “Fox and Friends.” “It may be impossible to get to the bottom of it.”
At a State Department news conference, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the situation was handled “incredibly well” to ensure the safety of U.S. troops.
“We took this seriously, we handled it appropriately,” Pompeo said, without giving additional details. He said the administration receives intelligence about threats to Americans “every single day” and each is addressed.
Pompeo added that Russian activity in Afghanistan is nothing new and that Russia is just one of many nations acting there. He said that Congress has had similar information in the past, and that he often receives threat assessments that don't rise to the level of a presidential briefing.
Trump is coming under increasing pressure from lawmakers of both parties to provide more answers about the intelligence and the U.S. response or lack of one. Democrats who were briefed at the White House on Tuesday suggested he was bowing to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the risk of U.S. soldiers’ lives.
The president has repeatedly said he wasn’t briefed on the assessments that Russia offered bounties because there wasn’t corroborating evidence. Those 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.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany pointed to an individual who she said made the decision not to brief Trump, identifying the person as a female CIA officer with more than 30 years of experience. O'Brien said the person was a “career CIA briefer.”
“The national security adviser agreed with that decision," McEnany said. "It was the right decision to make, and at this moment as I speak to you it is still unverified.”
Trump remained defensive about the intelligence in early morning tweets, dismissing stories about it as “Fake News” made up to “damage me and the Republican Party.”
Later in the day, Trump said in a television interview that It was a hoax and “we never heard about it” because intelligence officials didn't think it rose to that level.
“The intelligence people, many of them didn’t believe it happened at all," Trump said on Fox Business.
O'Brien said the intelligence wasn’t brought to Trump’s attention initially because it was unverified and there was no consensus among the intelligence community. But it’s rare for intelligence to be confirmed without a shadow of doubt before it is presented to senior government decision-makers.
The national security adviser echoed the recent White House talking point faulting not Russia but government leakers and the media for making the matter public.
Senate Republicans appeared split on the matter, with several defending the president and saying that the Russian meddling wasn't new.
Others expressed strong concern.
Sen. Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania called for administration officials to address the entire Senate and answer questions. He said he had reviewed classified documents regarding the potential bounties “upon which recent news reports are based” and said the information raises many questions.
“If it is concluded that Russia offered bounties to murder American soldiers, a firm American response is required in short order,” Toomey said.
Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley had similar words on the Senate floor, saying that if the reports are true, "it demands a strong response, and I don’t mean a diplomatic response.”
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. They said the administration should brief all members of Congress.
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.
Senate Republicans who received their own briefing largely defended the president, arguing along with the White House that the intelligence was unverified. 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.”
Similarly, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he didn’t think Trump should be “subjected to every rumor.”
Intelligence officials, including CIA Director Gina Haspel and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, will brief the so-called Gang of 8 — McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the top Republicans and Democrats on the two intelligence committees — in a classified meeting on Capitol Hill Thursday morning.
While Russian meddling in Afghanistan isn’t new, officials said Russian operatives had become 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 whenr 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. The officials the AP spoke to also said they were looking closely at insider attacks from 2019 to determine if they were linked to Russian bounties.
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 had told colleagues he had briefed Trump on the matter.
Associated Press writers Zeke Miller, Lisa Mascaro, Alan Fram, Matthew Daly and Deb Riechmann in Washington and Jonathan Lemire in Mystic, Connecticut, contributed to this report.