Trump, top officials defend response to Russia bounty threat

Trump, top officials defend response to Russia bounty threat

WASHINGTON — Criticized for inaction, President Donald Trump and top officials stepped up their defence 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 Wednesday 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” that Trump won’t say publicly that he is working to get to the bottom of the issue and won’t call out Putin. He said Trump’s defence 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 agreed 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 rumour.”

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 when a car rigged with explosives detonated near their armoured vehicles as they travelled 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.

Mary Clare Jalonick, Matthew Lee And James Laporta, The Associated Press

Russia

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said the Canadian government should consider sanctions on the U.S. if they refuse to reconsider the decision to cancel the Keystone XL Pipeline. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Keystone XL officially cancelled, Kenney vows to fight on

U.S. President Joe Biden cancelled the presidential permit for the pipeline on first day of office

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said province’s test positivity rate for COVID-19 is steadily declining. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
669 new COVID-19 cases in Alberta, 21 additional deaths

COVID-19 test positivity rate down to 4.5 per cent

Kyla Gibson with her boyfriend Gavin Hardy. (Photo used with permission)
Sylvan Lake couple lose ‘fur babies’ to house fire

‘They were our world and nothing will ever replace them,’ Kyla Gibson said of her three pets

File Photo
Sylvan Lake challenging locals to Lap the Lake

Locals are challenged to walk 37 km in 30 days to “lap the lake” for charity

Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw reported an additional 456 COVID-19 cases over the past 24 hours. (photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Five new COVID-19 deaths in Central zone, two in Red Deer

Province reports 456 new cases of COVID-19

(Thesendboys/Instagram)
Video of man doing backflip off Vancouver bridge draws police condemnation

Group says in Instagram story that they ‘don’t do it for the clout’

Toronto’s Mass Vaccination Clinic is shown on Sunday January 17, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Canadian malls, conference centres, hotels offer up space for COVID vaccination centres

Commercial real estate association REALPAC said that a similar initiative was seeing success in the U.K.

Kamala Harris and Joe Biden are sworn into office on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP)
Joe Biden has been sworn in as the 46th president of the United States

About 25,000 National Guard members have been dispatched to Washington

A memorial for the fatal bus crash involving the Humboldt Broncos hockey team at the intersection of Highways 35 and 335 near Tisdale, Tuesday, October 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Liam Richards
‘End of the road:’ Truck driver in Humboldt Broncos crash awaits deportation decision

Sidhu was sentenced almost two years ago to eight years after pleading guilty to dangerous driving

In this March 28, 2017, file photo, a dump truck hauls coal at Contura Energy’s Eagle Butte Mine near Gillette, Wyo. Public opposition to the Alberta government’s plans to expand coal mining in the Rocky Mountains appears to be growing. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Mead Gruver, File
Alberta cancels coal leases, pauses future sales, as opposition increases

New Democrat environment critic Marlin Schmidt welcomed the suspension

File photo
Wetaskiwin Crime Reduction Unit recovers valuable stolen property

Property valued at over $50,000 recovered by Wetaskiwin Crime Reduction Unit.

In this March 28, 2017, file photo, a dump truck hauls coal at Contura Energy’s Eagle Butte Mine near Gillette, Wyo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Mead Gruver, File)
First Nations seek to intervene in court challenge of coal policy removal

Bearspaw, Ermineskin and Whitefish First Nations are among those looking to intervene

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau provides an update on the COVID-19 pandemic from Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau provides an update on the COVID-19 pandemic from Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Trudeau vows to keep up the fight to sway U.S. on merits of Keystone XL pipeline

Canada’s pitch to the Biden team has framed Keystone XL as a more environmentally friendly project than original

Most Read