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Democrats Fault Trump Over Russia Bounty Allegations, Ask For More Information

House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer walks through Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol.
Tasos Katopodis
Getty Images
House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer walks through Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol.

Updated at 4:35 p.m. ET

The political squall over alleged Russian bounties targeting U.S. troops strengthened on Tuesday amid potent new reports and deepening partisan rancor about what Washington should do next.

The day began with criticism by House Democrats of President Trump after a briefing at the White House on the allegations, which left the lawmakers calling for more information directly from the intelligence community.

Later, after a group of senators heard from the White House, it defended Trump and the practices of the administration, calling the picture of the situation in Afghanistan incomplete.

Democrats demand more intel

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., led a delegation of Democrats to the morning briefing, including the chairmen of the Foreign Affairs, Armed Services and Intelligence committees.

Hoyer said in a press conference back at the Capitol that he didn't believe they received "any new substantive information." The lawmakers also criticized what they called the poor practices within the Trump administration that have led to this point.

"This was a red flag — it either was not waved or the president ignored that wave," Hoyer said.

At issue are what appear to be disputed allegations within the spy world about whether Russian paramilitary or intelligence operatives might have paid bounties to the Taliban in order to target U.S. and allied troops.

Top national security officials have suggested that the intelligence agencies are trying to substantiate these allegations. The reports apparently came from U.S. forces on the ground in Afghanistan and interviews with captured enemies. Now the question is whether spy agencies can learn more about the practices from other sources.

Some officials have said that work may now be disrupted because of the press reports about it.

New revelations muddy the waters

Those accounts are evolving fast: The New York Times reported during the day that the U.S. has evidence Russia's military intelligence agency, the GRU, transferred money to accounts used by the Taliban in the alleged bounty scheme.

The Times also reported that White House briefers did not give that information to the Republican House lawmakers who visited to learn more since the initial reports about the bounty saga.

In short, the newspaper's report suggested the evidence is stronger than some official accounts so far about the existence of the bounty scheme, but that the Trump administration has sought to play up an inconclusive "unanswered questions" narrative by keeping all it knows even from some of its own political allies.

Even with the unresolved questions about the story, the Democrats who visited the White House on Tuesday morning said before the latest Times report that they considered the evidence in hand to be serious enough. It merits not only a presentation to Trump but also a public warning to Russian President Vladimir Putin not to target American forces, they argued.

Hoyer and his colleagues also said they want to hear directly from intelligence community leaders, as opposed to the White House officials with whom they met on Tuesday, and for every member of Congress to get a presentation too.

So far, the White House has talked only with small groups of lawmakers.

Dems revive Russia criticism

The Democrats on Tuesday revived old criticisms that Trump is too deferential to Putin and Russia. They also faulted what they said have become dysfunctional operations within at the White House.

"There may be a reluctance to brief the president on things he doesn't want to hear — that may be more true with respect to Putin and Putin's Russia more than any other subject," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

But Schiff, who led the House Democrats' impeachment efforts against Trump earlier this year, also implied the intelligence agencies and aides responsible for keeping Trump informed about threats may have not done all they could to get him to digest the bounty allegations.

"If a president doesn't read briefs, it doesn't work to give him the product and not tell him what's in it," Schiff said.

He continued: "I don't want to comment on this particular case, but it's not a justification to say that the president should have read whatever materials he has. If he doesn't read, he doesn't read. They should know that by now. If there's something the president needs to know before he talks to Putin, it needs to be shared with him before he talks to Putin. It needs to be shared with him in whichever way he takes it."

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., a former CIA officer and member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said there were no members of the intelligence community at the White House to brief Democrats on the topics they were interested in discussing.

Spanberger said she was concerned that intelligence prepared by professionals in the field is being treated as opinion rather than fact.

"There seems to be a general impression that intelligence isn't meant to be taken as the report is given, that it is something that people get to cast their own opinions on or aspersions on," Spanberger said. "Particularly given what I know of the work that goes into ... [these] ... documents, I find it unfortunate."

Trump reportedly told in written materials

The Times and The Associated Press have reported that intelligence officials described the Russian bounty allegations to White House officials months or more ago, likely in written materials — ones Trump evidently did not absorb, given his denials about knowing of the story.

Neither the White House nor the intelligence community have addressed questions as to whether the bounty allegations appeared in the President's Daily Brief.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said on Tuesday that Trump now has received a presentation about the bounty allegations — he hadn't as of Monday — but she stressed that the matter is unresolved. She also said Trump processes information in a number of ways.

"The president does read and he also consumes intelligence verbally," McEnany said.

Scrutiny following press bombshells

The White House has faced significant scrutiny since the first reports of the bounty payments were made public and stirred confusion among onlookers about what was known when and by whom.

Leaders in Congress and the chairmen of the relevant committees — including Intelligence and Armed Services — evidently were not read in.

Trump said Sunday that the report was "probably just another phony Times hit job."

The reporting has since been amplified by other news organizations and by members of Congress and even by a very rare statement from the director of the CIA denouncing the release of the information.

Republicans went to White House first

Hoyer and his colleagues followed eight House Republicans, who were briefed Monday at the White House on the reports.

Those lawmakers took a mostly cautious tone, calling the bounty allegations serious but calling for more investigation.

Discussing the meeting before The New York Times report about the wire transfers — which also said they hadn't been shown that intelligence — the Republicans agreed more investigation is needed and didn't criticize the administration for not singling this issue out for Trump.

"Every level of government needs to gather more information to understand this situation better. Measures have to be taken to be sure our troops are protected," said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., said he didn't see a problem with lower-level officials working on finding out more before asking the president to set aside time on his calendar.

"I don't see any reason he necessarily should have been [briefed] at this point," Kinzinger said. "And so I think as we get more answers, then we'll know what the response needs to be, but I don't think this has been built up to be any kind of internal scandal. But it is definitely a concern ... what role is Russia playing in Afghanistan."

Senators are briefed

Senators began to get official briefings on Tuesday too.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who's currently serving as the interim chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said a group of six to seven senators joined White House officials for their briefing on the intelligence.

He also suggested that as a result of the pandemic, the full Congress may not be briefed in person on Capitol Hill as a result of social distancing concerns. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate had asked for that.

Rubio said he remains assured that the U.S. remains poised to respond to threats, irrespective about who had what piece of information about events in Afghanistan.

"I am not concerned that we as a nation are unprepared to do everything possible to protect our men or women stationed abroad, from a variety of threats," Rubio told Capitol Hill pool reporters.

He also noted that the Intelligence Committee is due to meet with Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe in a previously scheduled closed-door hearing this week, and members will be able to ask questions related to the intelligence there.

A congressional aide confirmed to NPR the panel is set to meet with Ratcliffe at 2 p.m. EST in a secure room at the Capitol.

Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who also attended Tuesday's briefing, fiercely defended the president.

Johnson accused congressional Democratic leaders of knowing about the Russian intelligence prior to recent media reports, and said he thought there was likely nothing mystifying about a president possibly missing one of many details in the President's Daily Brief.

"Listen, the president has got a big job — he can't be made aware of every piece of unverified intelligence. OK? And that's what this was, unverified intelligence."

Spies vow investigation

In separate statements on Monday evening, Ratcliffe and CIA Director Gina Haspel said they would continue to look into the bounty allegations and brief the president and congressional leaders.

They condemned the release of information about the investigation to the press.

Defense Department spokesman Jonathan Hoffman declared unequivocally that the Pentagon, for its part, cannot verify that bounties were paid to insurgents to target American or allied forces.

His statement alluded specifically to the Russian military intelligence agency, the GRU.

"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," he said. "To date, DOD has no corroborating evidence to validate the recent allegations found in open-source reports."

NPR congressional correspondents Claudia Grisales and Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of Military.com, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.
Alana Wise
Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.
Alana Wise joined WAMU in September 2018 as the 2018-2020 Audion Reporting Fellow for Guns & America. Selected as one of 10 recipients nationwide of the Audion Reporting Fellowship, Alana works in the WAMU newsroom as part of a national reporting project and is spending two years focusing on the impact of guns in the Washington region.
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