Briefed on Bounty Intel, Democrats See Little Trace of Hoax

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, second from right, walks off of the House floor on April 23. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (CN) — After a White House briefing Tuesday morning, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said there was no information to back up President Donald Trump’s snubbing of reports that Russian officials offered bounties to Taliban soldiers in exchange for American lives.

“Nothing in the briefing we have just received led me to believe it is a hoax,” said Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat. “There may be different judgements to the level of credibility, but there was no assertion that the information we had was a hoax.” 

The meeting for Democrats follows an exclusive report from The New York Times over the weekend that Russia secretly offered bounties to Taliban-backed militia for the death of American troops in Afghanistan. Eight Republican lawmakers attended a separate briefing on the matter Tuesday, with some saying they would “strongly encourage the administration to take swift and serious action to hold the Putin regime accountable” if the report could be verified.

Congressman Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the review of the report “ongoing.”

Speaking to the press after Tuesday’s briefing of Democrats, California Congressman Adam Schiff said Russia should be barred from upcoming Group of Seven talks. He also called for lawmakers to consider appropriate sanctions.

“I find it inexplicable, in light of these very public allegations, that the president hasn’t come before the country and assured the American people that he will get to the bottom of whether Russians are putting a bounty on the head of American troops,” said Schiff, who chairs the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “I do not understand for a moment why the president isn’t saying this to the American people right now and is relying on, ‘I don’t know,’ ‘I haven’t heard,’ ‘I haven’t been briefed.’ That’s just not excusable.” 

Anonymously quoting U.S. officials Tuesday, The Associated Press reported that White House representatives, including Trump, were made aware of the Taliban bounties in early 2019. The AP previously had reported that information about the bounties had been in the president’s written daily briefing earlier this year.

Former national security adviser John Bolton called it inconceivable Sunday that Trump wasn’t briefed on a matter this important to American security abroad.

David Birdsell, dean of the Baruch College Marxe School of Public and International Affairs, said Tuesday that Trump’s unwillingness to forcefully respond to Russia’s attacks on U.S. troops, put all Americans — domestically, and overseas — at risk.

“A president who cannot bring himself or even deputize others to acknowledge that such bounties were offered and paid when killings were confirmed, trumpets the unwillingness of his administration to respond to deadly assaults on its citizens,” the professor wrote in an email. 

Birdsell also said Trump’s response was clearly informed by his distrust of members of the intelligence community. Branding intelligence personnel and agencies as “deep-state” actors, the president is widely reported to show disinterest at oral briefings and to leave written reports unread.

“The unwillingness to listen to intelligence briefings overall and particularly to intelligence that challenges his goals or his worldview, emboldens Russia and any nation engaged in clandestine operations contrary to US interests, even when the actions are as blatant as paying bounties for murder,” Birdsell wrote. “It would appear that, for President Trump, the political utility of picking a fight with his own intelligence community, outweighs his sacred duty to protect American lives.”

Hoyer said he felt Tuesday’s briefing was more concurrent with the White House’s opinion of the credibility of the intelligence. What members needed was intelligence community members to give them their assessment, he said.

“What we need to know is the intelligence perspective so I am therefore urging the White House and the chief of staff to follow up on my request to make sure that we are briefed by the intelligence community directly, so we can get to the bottom of this,” Hoyer said. 

Schiff threw cold water on the theory that the intelligence was withheld. Intelligence is often presented “along with caveats,” but keeping information from the president rises to the level of negligence, he said. 

“You don’t deprive the president of information he needs to keep the troops safe because you don’t have it signed, sealed and delivered,” Schiff said at the press conference. “I would certainly put this in the category that, if you’re going to be on the phone with Vladimir Putin, this is something you ought to know. Whether it’s caveated or not, this is something you ought to know.”

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