Senate Republicans defend Trump’s response on Russian bounties

Senate Republicans are defending President Trump’s handling of intelligence claiming that Russia’s military intelligence units offered bounties to Taliban militants to kill U.S. troops, arguing the evidence of bounties has not received sufficient verification.

Trump has come under sharp criticism since Saturday for not issuing a forceful response to the allegations or vowing to get to the bottom of the claims. Instead, the president has waved off media reports as “fake news” and suggested the story is meant to make Republicans “look bad.”

Trump claimed in a tweet Sunday night, “Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me or @VP. Possibly another fabricated Russia Hoax, maybe by the Fake News @nytimesbooks.”

One Republican lawmaker, Sen. Ben Sasse (Neb.), said Monday that the White House needed to get more “serious” in its response after he was flooded by calls from Nebraskan constituents alarmed about media reports of the bounties.

By Tuesday, however, Republican senators started to rally around Trump, defending his handling of intelligence after receiving a briefing at the White House from Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and national security adviser Robert O’Brien.

Republican lawmakers who attended the White House briefing said media reports about the intelligence were “inaccurate” or based on “unverified” intelligence.

GOP senators argued that Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee had access to the same intelligence the president did and didn’t sound an alarm, implying the recent controversy has a political motive with the election four months away.  

Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), who attended the briefing with Ratcliffe and O’Brien Tuesday morning, said “major national newspapers” reported “on unverified and inconclusive intelligence as though it had been conclusively determined that Russia paid bounties on U.S. troops.”

“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,” he added.

Democrats have ripped Trump over the issue, and Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) on Tuesday morning criticized the president for not taking immediate action.

“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,” Schumer said on the Senate floor.

“But unlike every previous administration I’ve ever worked with, the Trump administration has been shockingly weak-kneed when it comes to authoritarian leaders like Putin.”

Schumer on Tuesday said Democrats would push for amendments to the annual defense policy bill, which is pending on the floor this week, to penalize Russia.

“The bottom line is we need tough action and tough action against Putin and in the NDAA bill, we will seek to get it,” he said, referring to the National Defense Authorization Act.

Democrats will offer an amendment sponsored by acting Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) to place new sanctions on Russia if it interferes in the 2020 elections.

But Congress’s response to allegations that Russia offered bounties on U.S. troops is rapidly breaking down along party lines, raising doubts whether lawmakers will be able to send anything to Trump’s desk to force a reckoning with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who is managing the defense bill, said earlier Tuesday that he is opposed to adding language to address the allegation of bounties.  

Sens. Joni Ernst (Iowa) and Ron Johnson (Wis.), two other Republican senators who participated in the White House briefing, both disputed media reports that Russia paid bounties for the targeting of U.S. troops.

“The main point is the intelligence was not verified,” Johnson said. “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.”

The New York Times in another bombshell revelation Tuesday reported that American officials intercepted electronic data showing large financial transfers from a bank account controlled by Russia’s military intelligence agency to a Taliban-linked account, citing three officials familiar with the intelligence.

Johnson said that information didn’t come up at the White House briefing.

GOP leaders say they do not have any immediate plans to schedule a vote on sanctions legislation, as some Democrats are demanding.

“We’ll see. Our relevant committees will continue to look at it. I don’t think there’s any lack of appetite to put sanctions on Russia for all their malign activities. But whether that’s something that gets floor time this year is an open question,” said Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.).

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday afternoon declined to say whether he would support additional sanctions on Russia but said the president and other U.S. policymakers shouldn’t have any illusions about Putin’s hostility to the United States.

“It’s no secret the Russians are up to no good. They have been throughout Putin’s tenure. Various administrations have tried to warm up to Putin. It’s clear that he’s not somebody you can warm up to,” he said.

McConnell said he couldn’t verify whether Russia offered bounties on U.S. troops but wouldn’t be surprised if they did.

“Would I be surprised if the Russians were doing something like this? Absolutely not. They’re trying to create a problem for us everywhere,” he said.

The GOP leader said it’s “appropriate” for the White House to brief senators on the allegation of bounties.

“I don’t have an observation about what may have happened in the past, but listening to the people who have been briefed, it appears as if this is not a conclusion that’s been reached to such a level that it might have even made it to the top,” he said.

Tags Afghanistan Ben Sasse Chris Van Hollen Chuck Schumer Donald Trump Jim Inhofe John Ratcliffe John Thune Joni Ernst Marco Rubio Mitch McConnell Ron Johnson Russia russian bounties Todd Young Vladimir Putin

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