WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump had not been briefed on reports that Russia was behind bounty payments to Taliban-linked militants over successful attacks on coalition troops because there were “dissenting opinions” within the U.S. intelligence community over the veracity of the reports, a White House spokeswoman said Monday.
“There is no consensus within the intelligence community on these allegations and in effect there are dissenting opinions from some in the intelligence community with regards to the veracity of what’s being reported,” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said at a briefing with reporters. “The veracity of the underlying allegations continue to be evaluated.”
The White House briefed members of Congress over the intelligence reports Monday, McEnany told reporters.
Lawmakers had pressed the administration for more details after the New York Times reported Friday that Trump was informed months ago that a Russian intelligence unit offered secret cash payments to Taliban-linked militants to kill coalition troops, including Americans.
McEnany declined to say who attended the administration’s briefing but told reporters White House chief of staff Mark Meadows called Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer on Sunday night to extend a bipartisan invitation to eight members of relevant committees.
Trump has insisted he did not know about the reported bounty and Russia and the Taliban have denied the existence of any such payments.
The Associated Press, citing U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the intelligence, reported Monday night that top White House officials were aware in early 2019 of classified intelligence indicating Russia was secretly offering bounties to the Taliban for the deaths of Americans, a full year earlier than has been previously reported.
The assessment was included in at least one of Trump’s written daily intelligence briefings at the time, according to the officials. Then-national security adviser John Bolton also told colleagues he briefed Trump on the intelligence assessment in March 2019.
Though lawmakers were receiving a briefing over the bounty allegations on Monday afternoon, McEnany said the president still hadn’t been briefed on the issue because he is only “briefed on verified intelligence.” She also declined to say whether the intelligence was included in the president’s written daily briefings.
Trump tweeted Sunday night that intelligence officials had “just” informed him they did not deem the report credible and therefore did not brief him or Vice President Mike Penceon the initial intelligence.
Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said in a statement Saturday that he had “confirmed that neither the President nor the Vice President were ever briefed on any intelligence alleged by the New York Times in its reporting.”
The report, later confirmed by multiple news agencies, alleged that a unit of Russia’s military intelligence agency – the G.R.U. known for orchestrating assassinations and destabilization efforts against western democracies – was behind the bounties on U.S. troops.
The intelligence was based on interrogations of militants in Afghanistan that found Russia offered funding for successful attacks on coalition troops last year, according to the Times report.
McEnany slammed the New York Times for its “irresponsible” decision to publish a report that the president had been briefed, but the paper has stood by its reporting.
“We stand by our story, the details of which have not been denied by the President’s own National Security agencies,” said Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy.
Late Monday, Ratcliffe and CIA Director Gina Haspel issued separate statements denouncing intelligence leaks to the press.
“The selective leaking of any classified information disrupts the vital interagency work to collect, assess, and mitigate threats and places our forces at risk,” Ratcliffe said. “It is also, simply put, a crime.”
Ratcliffe said officials “are still investigating the alleged intelligence referenced in recent media reporting, and we will brief the president and congressional leaders at the appropriate time. This is the analytic process working the way it should. Unfortunately, unauthorized disclosures now jeopardize our ability to ever find out the full story with respect to these allegations.”
Haspel stressed that when developing intelligence assessments, initial reports often require “additional collection and validation.”
In general, she said, preliminary intelligence information “is shared throughout the national security community – and with U.S. allies – as part of our ongoing efforts to ensure the safety of coalition forces overseas. Leaks compromise and disrupt the critical interagency work to collect, assess, and ascribe culpability.”
Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., who said he was among the Republicans who attended the White House briefing, accused the Times of using “unconfirmed intel in an ONGOING investigation into targeted killing of American soldiers in order to smear the President.”
The Associated Press reported suspicions were raised after members of the elite Naval Special Warfare Development Group, also known as the SEAL Team Six, found $500,000 while raiding a Taliban outpost earlier this year.
Unnamed intelligence officials told the AP they are investigating attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2019 to see if there was any evidence connecting them to the Russian bounties.
The White House came under pressure after a chorus of lawmakers – both Republican and Democratic – questioned whether the president was kept in the dark or if he declined to act after he was briefed on the intelligence.
Several lawmakers cited Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin, and wondered if he is trying to shield the Russian president from embarrassing disclosures.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a senior member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, said, “it is completely unacceptable for the President to continue to pursue policies that benefit Putin, such as withdrawing U.S. troops from Germany and pushing for Russia’s re-admittance to the G-8.”
Shaheen added: “Russia’s adversarial actions against the United States demand a strong response, not appeasement.”
In calling for briefings of lawmakers, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said “Congress needs to know what the intelligence community knows about this significant threat to American troops and our allies and what options are available to hold Russia accountable.”
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who golfed with Trump on Sunday, tweeted on Saturday that it was “imperative” that Congress get to the bottom of the reported bounties while Wyoming Republican Rep. Liz Cheney called on the White House to share more information.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., issued a statement saying he “long warned about Russia’s efforts to undermine U.S. interests in the Middle East from Syria to Afghanistan,” noting that he authored an amendment condemning Trump’s decision to pull U.S. forces from Syria and Afghanistan.
“The United States needs to prioritize defense resources, maintain a sufficient regional military presence, and continue to impose serious consequences on those who threaten us and our allies – like our strikes in Syria and Afghanistan against ISIS, the Taliban, and Russian mercenary forces that threatened our partners,” he said.
Contributing: William Cummings and David Jackson, USA TODAY; The Associated Press.