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

By Philip Ewing NPR

Updated at 1:46 p.m. ET

House Democrats condemned President Trump after a meeting at the White House about alleged Russian bounty payments for the killing of U.S. troops on Tuesday and said they want more information from the intelligence community.

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

Hoyer said 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 Trump administration national security officials have suggested that the intelligence agencies are trying to substantiate these allegations. The reports may have come 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 and public furor about it.

The Democrats who visited the White House on Tuesday said they considered the evidence now known to be serious enough to have merited not only a presentation to Trump but also a public warning to Russian President Vladimir Putin not to target American forces.

Hoyer and his colleagues 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. Republicans went first on Monday.

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.”

The New York 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.

The White House said Monday that Trump still hadn’t had a special presentation about the bounty allegations because of the disagreement about the matter within the intelligence world.

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 its potential documents, I find it unfortunate.”

Spanberger said she has personal experience preparing intelligence for reports, including the President’s Daily Brief, and that it is a process that includes vetting sources, caveating sources and overlaying information to build a larger picture of a potential threat. She said that what she called the trend of casting doubt on that information and on nonpartisan intelligence officers is troubling.

“I think as a as a former intelligence officer over the past number of years, we have see a lack of interest in the product put out by the intelligence community,” Spanberger said. “We have seen constant attacks on our public servants in the intelligence community, the CIA officers or FBI agents.”

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 weren’t 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.

“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.

He and Republicans talked in a press conference after the Democrats on Tuesday. Thornberry was in the delegation that visited the White House on Monday.

Another member who took part, Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, told NPR this week that he considered the bounty matter serious but that the intelligence isn’t yet “actionable” — and accordingly the White House couldn’t decide what to do.

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.”

Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., echoed that on Tuesday with a post on Twitter that said he agreed the case against Russia is not yet airtight and that the time hadn’t come to take special steps to inform the president.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said on Tuesday that he’s confident Trump takes national security seriously and observed that Trump had approved the sale of weapons to Ukraine to deter Russian mischief there.

McCarthy complained about what he called the politicking over the Russia story by Democrats and said this issue is too serious to become the subject of partisan attacks.

“It doesn’t matter what party you are in. We should not play games with this,” McCarthy said.

Spies vow investigation

In separate statements on Monday evening, Director of National Intelligence John 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.

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