Democrats hit Trump for handling of Russian bounty allegations after White House briefing
House Democrats on Tuesday hit President Trump for denying knowledge of intelligence that Russia offered bounties to incentivize Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan, rather than vowing to get to the bottom of a matter that suggests U.S. service members are at risk.
In a press conference Tuesday morning, a group of Democrats who had just been briefed at the White House questioned why Trump’s advisers did not make sure Trump saw the intelligence as he kept up communications with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“It makes no sense whatsoever for the President and the administration not to call out Putin,” House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said at the podium, surrounded by other physically-distanced Democrats. “I don’t understand what it is with the president’s infatuation with Putin.”
Democrats also stressed that the briefing at the White House is not a substitute for a full House briefing and said they want intelligence professionals from the CIA and NSA to conduct the briefings, rather than officials like White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, national security adviser Robert O’Brien, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe.
“The right people to give the briefings really were not in the room,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
“We need to hear from the heads of the intelligence agencies about how they assess the allegations that have been made publicly, what can they tell us about the truth or falsity of these allegations, what can they tell us about steps they are undertaking or have undertaken to vet any information that they may have,” he added
“I think we knew the White House perspective, what we need to know is the intelligence perspective,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House Majority Leader, adding that they did not receive “any new substantive information.”
Democrats, who were limited to what they could say about the intelligence, said they forcefully disagree with President Trump that the allegation about the rewards is a “hoax.”
“Nothing in the briefing that we’ve just received led me to believe it is a hoax,” said Hoyer.
The briefing at the White House comes a day after the White House briefed House Republicans about the intelligence, a move that came as the Trump administration faced bipartisan pressure to explain what Trump knew about the threat — or why he didn’t.
White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany on Monday denied that Trump was “personally” briefed on the reported bounties, noting that he was not briefed because of a lack of consensus and “dissenting opinions” within the intelligence community about the credibility of the information. She did not answer questions as to whether Trump received elements of the intelligence in his Daily Presidential Briefing.
Citing officials, The New York Times then reported late Monday that Trump was provided a written briefing in late February.
Democrats suggested the White House has no reason to claim Trump didn’t see the intelligence. If he didn’t read the briefing, it fell to his advisers to ensure he was aware of the facts, however he best takes in information, they said.
“If a president doesn’t read the briefs, it doesn’t work to give him a product and not tell him what’s in it,” Schiff said, noting that that he is speaking generally. “It’s not a justification to say that the president should have read whatever materials he has. If the president doesn’t read, he doesn’t read. They should know that by now.”
Schiff speculated that maybe Trump’s advisers were afraid to give the president information that he doesn’t want to hear, while Hoyer quoted former national security adviser John Bolton in saying that it is “inconceivable” that matter as grave as U.S. troops being killed did not reach the president.
Others, however, expressed skepticism about the White House claims that the president didn’t know.
Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said based off what he heard at the White House briefing, “it seems to me like [Trump] did know about it.”
“Now maybe he was aware of the allegation, looked at it and said, there’s nothing to this,” Smith said during a separate phone call with reporters during the press conference. “It’s hard for me to believe based on the way it was presented that the president knew nothing about it as he stated.”
Rebecca Kheel contributed.