President Trump, confronted with a damaging report that Russia offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill American and allied troops in Afghanistan, declared Sunday on Twitter that he was never briefed about the finding by U.S. intelligence.
Democrats including Trump’s prospective presidential rival, Joe Biden, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sharply criticized Trump’s seeming indifference to the explosive report in Friday’s New York Times. Neither Trump nor other administration officials have specifically denied the report, which has since been confirmed by several other news organizations.
On Sunday, Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming joined in the criticism, saying that if the information was genuine, the White House needed to explain why Trump was not told, and why the administration has done nothing in response.
The core of the story is that U.S. spy agencies concluded several months ago that a Russian military intelligence unit had offered secret bounties for attacks on coalition troops. The matter was discussed in late March by the National Security Council, and European allies including Britain were also made aware of the findings, the story said. On Sunday, the New York Times reported that the first word of the Russian plan came as early as January from military and intelligence officials in Afghanistan.
The reports hit the White House at an already troubled juncture. Multiple national polls show Biden outpacing Trump, and the president and his team have struggled to craft a coherent message amid a drumbeat of bad news: a surge in U.S. coronavirus cases that now exceed 2.5 million, the resulting economic carnage and the fallout from massive racial-justice protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Sunday, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who helped run Trump’s 2016 campaign, said on ABC’s “This Week” that “he will lose” his reelection bid “if he doesn’t change course, both in terms of the substance of what he is discussing and the way that he approaches the American people.”
So far, the White House response to the story has not been to lay out any response to Russia, but simply to insist that Trump had not been personally briefed.
The office of Trump’s handpicked director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe — who has been in his post for only a month, and was a controversial choice because of his lack of relevant experience and his avid partisanship as a congressman from Texas — released a statement late Saturday saying that neither Trump nor Vice President Mike Pence was “ever briefed on any intelligence” described in the story.
But intelligence experts suggested that the White House defense appeared to be largely a semantic one, perhaps resting on the material being included in the written daily intelligence brief that the president is known to avoid reading, rather than presented to him orally.
David Priess, a former CIA analyst and intelligence briefer, described several scenarios under which Trump and those about them could have been made aware of the assessment. The striking part, he said in a Twitter posting, was that the White House had not addressed the substance of the report, nor publicly expressed determination to get to the bottom of it.
“Why hasn’t the commander in chief responded to such a grave development?” he asked.
Trump, who spent Sunday at his Virginia golf property, referred in a pair of tweets to the “so-called attacks on our troops,” attacked the report as “Fake News” and wrote that “nobody briefed me or told me.”
But while avoiding a direct denial of the report’s underlying assertions, the president seemed to suggest the information might not trouble him much even if true.
“There have not been many attacks on us,” he wrote.
At least nine U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan this year, and 20 last year, out of nearly 2,400 American military fatalities in the course of the long conflict.
Biden hit Trump on the issue Saturday, saying that if the report was true, Trump’s inaction represented “a betrayal of the most sacred duty we bear as a nation, to protect and equip our troops when we send them into harm’s way.”
The former vice president described the episode as a continuation of Trump’s “embarrassing campaign of deference and debasing himself” before Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Biden, whose campaign is centered on virtual appearances because of the coronavirus pandemic, made his remarks at an online town hall.
Pelosi, interviewed Sunday on “This Week,” said the Russian bounty report revived longstanding questions about Trump’s affinity for Putin, which date back to U.S. intelligence findings that Moscow interfered on his behalf in the 2016 presidential election.
Trump has on many occasions gone out of his way to publicly defer to the Russian leader, and in recent weeks, he has pressed to restore Russia to the meetings of the Group of Seven leading industrial nations, from which it was excluded after its invasion of Crimea in 2014.
“This is as bad as it gets, and yet the president will not confront the Russians on this score,” Pelosi said of the bounty report, suggesting that the president might be behaving under some sort of duress.
“I don’t know what the Russians have on the president — politically, personally, financially, or whatever it is,” said the San Francisco Democrat. “Now he is saying this is fake news – why would he say that? Why wouldn’t he say, ‘Let’s look into it and see what this is?’”
Cheney, writing on Twitter, said the White House needed to disclose “who did know and when?” about the intelligence assessment, and to detail “what has been done in response to protect our forces & hold Putin accountable.”
Former national security adviser John Bolton, who was ousted from the White House last September, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that Trump’s “fundamental focus” was not on national security, or protecting American troops.
“So what is the presidential reaction?” asked Bolton, author of a scathing White House memoir.
“It’s to say, ‘It’s not my responsibility. No one told me about it.’”