Senate and House Republicans are backing President Trump against allegations in anonymously sourced reports that a Russian military intelligence unit offered bounties to the Taliban for U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan and that the president was briefed on it.
The White House has said Trump was never briefed on the intelligence, which remains unverified by the intelligence community. After receiving a briefing from the director of national intelligence and the national security adviser on Monday and Tuesday, Republicans agreed.
Sen. Todd Young (R-IN), who served as a Marine Corps intelligence officer, said he had questions about the reports, but that he was able to review intelligence material and said media outlets reported on “unverified” and “inconclusive” intelligence.
I’ve concluded the following: Number one, this Administration, and this President, has drawn on all available intelligence to keep our men and women in uniform safe …
Number two, those major national newspapers I mentioned, including the New York Times and Washington Post, reported on unverified and inconclusive intelligence as though it had been conclusively determined that Russia paid bounties on US troops.
Number three, every single member, Republican and Democrat alike, of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is aware – should have been aware – of the intelligence that I was briefed on. It’s long been available.
So look, President Trump has consistently been hard on Russia… and the President – to my mind – is taking this matter very seriously.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), who also attended the briefing, backed the president — also pointing out that congressional leaders had access to the intelligence long ago, but were not alarmed:
The intelligence was not verified. It wasn’t at the level of actionable intelligence. It wasn’t at the level that they notified the president. And quite honestly it wasn’t at the level that — congressional leaders had access to the exact same intelligence, that alarmed them either.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), who was also at the briefing, called the reports as “inaccurate.”
“I think that reporting was absolutely inaccurate. I had a briefing this morning and I know that the evidence is not corroborated,” she said, putting “evidence” in air quotes, according to The Hill.
Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN), a Navy veteran who served in Afghanistan, said the New York Times report — which first contained the allegations — was “nothing more than a hit piece” to hurt the president in November.
“The article in the New York Times on Friday was designed as nothing more than a hit piece to damage the president as we get closer to Election Day,” Banks told Sirius XM’s Breitbart News Daily on Tuesday. “It’s part of the track record of the New York Times to do this.”
Rep. Michael Waltz (R-FL), a Green Beret who has also served in Afghanistan, also questioned the timing of the Times’ report.
Waltz told Fox News on Monday:
We’ve known for years that the Russians have been supporting the Taliban through arms, through weapons, through other means…so to me, this really smacks of partisan talking points of hearing Russia and the president and trying to make hay of that in an election year.
Democrats, on the other hand, are using the allegations from anonymous sources to imply that the president has been too weak on Russia — a familiar refrain.
Democrats are also using the reports to argue the president does not care about the safety of U.S. troops in Afghanistan — despite the president drawing down thousands of troops there and wanting to end the war.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) on Tuesday argued there should be punishment for Russia.
“If in fact Putin and his cronies have been sponsoring the murder of American and coalition forces in Afghanistan, there is no question that there should be swift and severe consequences,” he said, claiming Trump has been “weak” on Russia.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) called it a “dereliction of duty.”
White House officials have pointed out over the last several days the many actions the administration has taken against Russia, and that any intelligence affecting U.S. troops — whether verified or unverified — goes directly to forces on the ground so that they can take necessary precautions.
National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien explained Tuesday in a briefing what happened when the unverified intelligence was received:
When this unverified intelligence came in — although it wasn’t necessary to give to the president at a strategical level because we were trying to verify it and corroborate it — the CIA, as Gina Haspel stated in a public document the other day, put it out to our allies, to our coalition partners, to the DOD. The Department of Defense has come out and said that they took all force protection measures necessary.
And then at the NSC — in my shop, we began writing a process — an interagency process bringing the government together to say look, if this eventually becomes something that’s proven or something that we’re — that we believe, we need to have options for the president to deal with the Russians.
“And I can tell you this. If this information turned out to be true — and now, we may never know — but if it turned out to be true, we had options ready to go and the president was ready to take strong action, as he always is,” he said.