U.S. President Donald Trump walks to Air Force One from the Marine One helicopter as he departs on a day trip to Arizona and a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border, leaving Washington from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S., June 23, 2020.
Carlos Barria | Reuters
President Donald Trump and the White House knew earlier than was previously reported about alleged Russian bounties offered to Afghan militants to kill American service members, according to new reports Monday night.
Trump received a written briefing in February about intelligence regarding the alleged bounties, The New York Times reported Monday night, citing two officials with knowledge of the matter.
The Associated Press, citing officials with direct knowledge of the matter, also reported that the White House was aware of the matter much earlier, in early 2019. Then-national security advisor John Bolton told colleagues that he briefed Trump on the matter in March 2019, the AP added.
Bolton has published a tell-all memoir about his time in the White House. The narrative is full of withering condemnations of the president and unflattering anecdotes about him. Trump has slammed the book as full of lies, while the administration unsuccessfully sought to block the book’s publication.
Trump and the White House have denied that the president had been briefed on the intelligence assessment regarding the Russian bounties. The White House had also said that the intelligence underpinning the claim was unverified.
National security advisor Robert O’Brien, in a statement Monday night, condemned the leaks and asserted that the president had not been briefed.
“Because the allegations in recent press articles have not been verified or substantiated by the Intelligence Community, President Trump had not been briefed on the items,” O’Brien said. “Nevertheless, the Administration, including the National Security Council staff, have been preparing should the situation warrant action.”
Chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement to NBC News, “The Department of Defense continues to evaluate intelligence that Russian GRU operatives were engaged in malign activity against United States and coalition forces in Afghanistan.”
“To date, DOD has no corroborating evidence to validate the recent allegations found in open-source reports,” he said. “Regardless, we always take the safety and security of our forces in Afghanistan – and around the world – most seriously and therefore continuously adopt measures to prevent harm from potential threats.”
The Times said the investigation has homed in on a car bombing in April 2019 that killed three Marines. That attack occurred the month after Bolton reportedly briefed Trump about the bounties. Bolton’s briefing for Trump didn’t have “actionable intelligence,” officials told the Associated Press.
Felicia Arculeo, whose son Cpl. Robert Hendriks, 25, died in the attack, told CNBC earlier Monday that she wanted an investigation into the claims that the victims were targeted by Taliban fighters who may have been offered bounties by Russian military intelligence agents.
Sgt. Benjamin Hines, 31, and Staff Sgt. Christopher Slutman, 43, were the other Marines killed in the attack, which came days before they were due to return home from Afghanistan.
The Times on Friday first reported that U.S. intelligence agencies had assessed that a Russian intelligence unit last year offered bounties to Islamist fighters in Afghanistan who killed U.S. soldiers.
The Times also reported that Trump had been briefed on the matter in March, but as of yet had not decided on whether or how to retaliate against Russia after being presented with a menu of options.
However, Monday, The Times reported that Trump had access to the information earlier, in February. The newspaper reported that one of the officials it cited had said it appeared in the president’s daily brief on Feb. 27.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said during a press briefing Monday that the president had not been briefed. Pressed on the matter by reporters, including whether that applied to the president’s daily briefing, she said: “He was not personally briefed on the matter. That is all I can share with you today, is that both the CIA director, the national security advisor, and the chief of staff can all confirm neither the president or the vice president was briefed.”