Republicans Demand Trump Answer on Alleged Russian Bounties
If the leaked U.S. intelligence reporting is verified, Republicans in Congress say President Trump needs to take swift action to hold Russia accountable.
Explosive new reports that Russia offered bounties to Afghan militants to kill U.S. and coalition forces are creating new fissures between the White House and its Republican allies on Capitol Hill as Republican lawmakers vow to get to the bottom of the allegations.
The White House, bowing to pressure from Congress, briefed a select group of Republican House members on the alleged intelligence reports on Monday after President Donald Trump initially denied the reports as possibly fabricated. The White House briefed a group of Democrats on Tuesday morning.
While Republicans have not criticized the president openly, they appear to not be taking the president’s denials at face value as the White House’s public statements shift in the face of new revelations about the alleged intelligence.
In a tweet on Sunday night, Trump himself said the U.S. intelligence community reported to him over the weekend “they did not find this info credible” and did not previously report it to the White House. “Possibly another fabricated Russia Hoax, maybe by the Fake News @nytimesbooks, wanting to make Republicans look bad!!!” Trump added.
On Monday, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany changed tack, saying there was “no consensus” in the intelligence community on the use of Russian bounties to incentivize the targeting of American troops, meaning the issue was not elevated to the president’s daily intelligence brief. On Monday evening, the Associated Press reported that the White House was aware of Russian bounties on U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan as early as 2019, and the information was included in at least one of the president’s daily intelligence briefings.
Republican Reps. Michael McCaul and Adam Kinzinger, both on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, released a statement on Monday evening after receiving a classified briefing at the White House indicating they need more information on the allegations. Top administration officials “informed us there is an ongoing review to determine the accuracy of these reports, and we believe it is important to let this review take place before any retaliatory actions are taken,” they said.
“There are already those who are politicizing this issue, however we cannot let politics overshadow a truth that Republicans and Democrats alike can agree on: the Putin regime cannot be trusted,” they said. “If the intelligence review process verifies the reports, we strongly encourage the administration to take swift and serious action to hold the Putin regime accountable.”
Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee who is retiring after this fall’s elections, called the White House’s initial statement that President Donald Trump was not briefed on the reported intelligence “very concerning.”
“I don’t know what the intelligence says, but if there were bounties put on—‘We’ll pay you so much if you kill an American’—I think that is a different level from providing weapons,” Thornberry said. “It is so egregious that if, in my view, if there were a hint of credibility to it, then you need to bring it to the president’s attention and there needs to be a plan on what you’re going to do about it.”
Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have pushed for an aggressive response to reporting from the New York Times and other outlets that indicated that Trump had been briefed on the information in March and had taken no action. The revelations stand poised to worsen already strained relations between Washington and Moscow despite repeated efforts from the president to improve bilateral ties. While Republican lawmakers have been reluctant to run afoul of Trump in past policy disagreements, they have pushed the administration to take a hard-line approach to Russia, including passing sweeping sanctions legislation on Russia in 2017 with veto-proof majorities.
Democratic members of Congress briefed on Tuesday morning at the White House told reporters they were perplexed that Trump hadn’t offered a stronger condemnation of allegations or sent intelligence officials to explain the situation to lawmakers.
“I would have preferred that the briefing be given by intelligence personnel,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who led the group of nine Democrats who visited the White House. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said Democrats are still demanding an all-member briefing from agency officials such as CIA Director Gina Haspel and want to see the underlying documentary evidence for the allegations.
Some veteran intelligence officials are skeptical of the White House’s explanation that Trump wasn’t briefed on the issue because there were dissenting opinions on the veracity of the reporting within the intelligence community. David Priess, a former CIA officer who served as a daily intelligence briefer during presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush said having consensus across the intelligence community on items in the brief “has not traditionally been a requirement” for including information for the president.
Richard Grenell, who temporarily served as acting director of national intelligence until May, said he had never heard of this intelligence assessment in a statement on Twitter responding to criticism from Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu. “I never heard this. And it’s disgusting how you continue to politicize intelligence,” he wrote. “You clearly don’t understand how raw intel gets verified. Leaks of partial information to reporters from anonymous sources is dangerous because people like you manipulate it for political gain.”
Trump’s new director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, said in a statement the intelligence community is “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,” he added.
The unit of Russia’s foreign military intelligence service, the GRU, which is reported to have spearheaded the Afghan operation, has played a leading role in Russia’s efforts to destabilize Western countries, from efforts to orchestrate a coup in Montenegro in 2016 to the attempted assassination of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in 2018. Individual operatives within the GRU’s Unit 29155, which U.S. intelligence allegedly pointed to as being behind the bounties, have been identified by open-source investigators with the research collective Bellingcat. “The U.S. clearly has a lot of sufficient intelligence on this unit and its personnel,” said Michael Weiss, a reporter who is currently working on a book about the history of the GRU.
In a statement on Monday night, Chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said the Defense Department had “no corroborating evidence” to validate the reports of the intelligence first reported in the New York Times, but he said it is continuing to evaluate whether GRU operatives placed bounties on U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan. “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,” Hoffman added.
The New York Times reported that the discovery of large amounts of U.S. dollars in a Taliban hideout and interrogation of militants were central in informing U.S. intelligence reporting of the Russian plot. Given that identities of several members of Unit 29155 are already well known to Western intelligence agencies, Weiss said it was highly likely that U.S. intelligence agencies were able to cross-reference the operatives’ movements with that of the Taliban militants. The Associated Press reported on Monday that the United States is still investigating whether any American troops died as a result of the bounties, and the investigation has focused on an April 2019 explosion that killed three Marines near Bagram Air Base.
But while the Trump administration has held in place sanctions against Russia and slapped erstwhile allies, such as Turkey, on the wrist for investing in Russian defense programs, some former administration officials saw the report as another sign of danger in the president’s personal coziness and praise for Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
In a meeting with Putin in Helsinki in 2018, Trump suggested he believed the Russian president’s denials that Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential elections, undercutting conclusions from the U.S. intelligence community. He later walked those comments back.
Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, refuted the allegations as “lies.”
John Sipher, a former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service, said that it was “inconceivable” that Putin would have been unaware of the offer to the Taliban.
“From my time in CIA, it was very clear that he was intimately involved and signing off on anything that could blow back on the Kremlin – namely assassinations, support to violent groups and paramilitary action,” said Sipher, who ran Russia operations for the CIA in Moscow.
“Certainly, some people have over-hyped his influence and treat him like some sort of master chess player making all the moves,” he said. “However, when it comes to the intelligence services, he is acting as the de facto Director.”
Late last month, Trump called for Russia to return to the G-7 in a September summit, and he told Putin of his plans to invite Moscow to rejoin the club of major economies it was booted out of after annexing Crimea in 2014. The suggestion prompted backlash from close U.S. allies in Europe, and U.S. officials who served under Trump say the White House should take that offer off the table.
“Russia is an enemy of the United States. We identify them as such in our national security strategy, but treat them as if they are allies,” said Mick Mulroy, a former Pentagon and CIA official who is now an ABC News national security analyst. “Why else would we be pushing to include a country in the G8 that invaded another and is now killing our soldiers.”
Update, June 30, 2020: This article was updated with new statements and information on the developing story.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch