Russian bounties revive Trump-GOP foreign policy divide

The controversy over reports that Russia targeted U.S. troops in Afghanistan is shining a spotlight back on long-running foreign policy divisions between President Trump and GOP lawmakers.

The Trump administration provided a round of briefings and closed-door documents in the wake of a flurry of news reports that Moscow offered bounties to Taliban-linked fighters to target U.S. and coalition forces. That move by administration officials was meant to quell the bipartisan outcry on Capitol Hill, particularly after reports that Trump was previously briefed on the matter. 

While several GOP senators defended Trump, the debacle revived broader concerns among Republicans about the administration’s relationship with Russia.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), while declining to discuss classified material, noted that based on publicly reported information, Russia has provided funds to the Taliban, which has killed Americans. 

“We shouldn’t be cozied up to Russia or giving them favors of any kind,” Romney told The Hill. “What we do know is Russia’s been helping the Taliban, the Taliban’s been killing Americans, and that’s all I need to know to know that we should be tough on Russia.”

“I certainly wouldn’t want to be inviting them to the G-7,” he added, referring to the Group of Seven.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) added that the administration needs to be communicating “clearly and aggressively” against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I’m interested in hearing the administration speak clearly about their plans that aren’t just hypothetical sanctions sometime out in the future, but what should we be doing now to make the GRU have more doubts about their behavior not just in Afghanistan but more broadly,” Sasse said.

The New York Times first reported on June 26, followed by several other news outlets, that the U.S. intelligence community concluded months ago that a unit within the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, secretly offered payments to Taliban-linked militants for attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan last year.

The reports unleashed a firestorm from Democrats, who have called for all-member briefings and new sanctions against Russia.

“Our Armed Forces would be better served if President Trump spent more time reading his daily briefing and less time planning military parades and defending relics of the Confederacy,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a joint statement after a briefing with CIA Director Gina Haspel.

The White House and other administration officials have sought to downplay the intelligence in recent days, saying there was dissent within the intelligence community about it and that it remains “unverified.”

The administration denied that Trump was briefed on the intelligence, but has sidestepped questions about subsequent reports that the material was included in the president’s written intelligence brief, known as the President’s Daily Brief, earlier this year.

Trump subsequently dismissed the reports about the bounties as a “hoax.”

But several GOP lawmakers indicated that, even after being briefed by administration officials or reviewing classified intelligence, they still had questions and broader concerns about Russia’s activities.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) is calling for an all-senators briefing after reviewing documents made available to all senators in the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility.

“This information raises many questions and administration officials should come before the Senate and provide a classified briefing and answer questions from all members. If it is concluded that Russia offered bounties to murder American soldiers, a firm American response is required in short order,” he said in a statement.

Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who hasn’t shied away from criticizing Trump on foreign policy, and Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a joint statement after a briefing at the White House that they remained concerned and predicted there would be further briefings.

“It has been clear for some time that Russia does not wish us well in Afghanistan. We believe it is important to vigorously pursue any information related to Russia or any other country targeting our forces. Congress has no more important obligation than providing for the security of our nation and ensuring our forces have the resources they need,” they said.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he expected lawmakers would be talking with the CIA and National Security Agency after a closed-door meeting with Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe.

“Russia was just accused of putting a bounty on the head of not only American service people, but our allies in some parts of the world. If that’s true, a price should be paid for that. And we’re going to be working hard in the next days to determine how deep that intelligence goes and how true that allegation is,” he added during a separate Senate floor speech.

Foreign policy, and Trump’s warm tone toward Putin, has been a running point of contention between GOP lawmakers and the president dating back to his days as a candidate, when he put an isolationist foreign policy at the center of his 2016 messaging strategy.

Since winning the White House, some of the biggest points of division between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue have been on foreign policy.

In 2017, Congress passed a Russia sanctions measure over the objections of the White House. Two years later, the Senate included a rebuke, crafted by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), of Trump’s Syria policy into a broader piece of legislation. The Senate has also voted multiple times to block part of Trump’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia, forcing him to issue vetoes.

Republican senators are also trying to use a mammoth defense bill to limit Trump’s ability to remove U.S. troops from Germany.

Romney, as well as Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Christopher Coons (D-Del.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), filed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to prohibit the administration from reducing the number of active-duty troops in Germany below 34,500 unless the Pentagon can meet several certifications, including that it is in the national security interest of the United States and would not negatively undermine European alliances or NATO. 

Trump has also floated trying to invite Russia back into the G-7 after it was ousted from the then-Group of Eight in 2014 for annexing Crimea and supporting pro-Kremlin separatists in eastern Ukraine.

McConnell sidestepped questions about Trump’s knowledge of the reported Russian bounties but said that he would “absolutely not” be surprised if it was true.

“They are trying to create a problem for us everywhere,” he told reporters.

Asked if Trump should invite Russia back to the G-7, he added: “Absolutely not.”

Tags Afghan Taliban Afghanistan Ben Sasse Christopher Coons Chuck Schumer Donald Trump Foreign policy G7 Gina Haspel intelligence briefing Jeanne Shaheen John Ratcliffe Lindsey Graham Liz Cheney Mac Thornberry Marco Rubio Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney Moscow Nancy Pelosi Pat Toomey President's Daily Brief Roy Blunt Russia russian bounties Tim Kaine Vladimir Putin

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