Trump: ‘Intel’ did not find Russia-Taliban bounty plot report ‘credible’
President Trump said late Sunday night that he had just been briefed by intelligence officials about reports of an alleged Russian plot offering bounties to the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers, and “intel” told him they did not assess the intelligence to be “credible.”
“Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me or @VP,” Trump tweeted, adding that it was “possibly another fabricated Russia Hoax, maybe by the Fake News” New York Times “wanting to make Republicans look bad.”
The New York Times reported on Friday that a U.S intelligence assessment concluded that a Russian spy unit paid Taliban-connected militants in Afghanistan to kill U.S. and other coalition troops, even as the Trump administration sought to reach a peace deal involving the Taliban and the Afghan government. The New York Times further reported Trump was briefed about the bounties during an interagency meeting late in March and that officials developed a list of options to respond, but the outlet’s sources said the administration had yet to authorize any of the actions.
Prior to Trump’s tweet, a senior Trump administration official had told the Washington Examiner on Sunday evening that Trump had not been briefed on the issue because there was a lack of consensus within the intelligence community about the accuracy of the intelligence. National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot told the Washington Examiner on Sunday night that “the veracity of the underlying allegations continues to be evaluated.”
Earlier Sunday, Trump claimed that “nobody briefed or told” him, Vice President Mike Pence, or chief of staff Mark Meadows “about the so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians” and argued that “nobody’s been tougher on Russia than the Trump Administration.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told ABC she didn’t believe Trump’s denial that he was briefed on the alleged bounty plot. The California Democrat said she believes Russia is holding something over Trump and causing him to “ignore” Russia-related intelligence briefings.
“This is as bad as it gets, and yet the president will not confront the Russians on this score — denies being briefed,” Pelosi said on This Week. “Whether he is or not, his administration knows, and our allies, some of our allies who work with us in Afghanistan have been briefed and accept this report. Just as I have said to the president, with him, all roads lead to Putin.”
John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser who has become a harsh critic of his old boss, pushed back against this line of thinking on NBC’s Meet the Press.
“Do you think that the president is afraid to make Putin mad because maybe Putin did help him win the election — and he doesn’t want to make him mad for 2020?” moderator Chuck Todd asked Bolton.
Bolton replied: “Honestly, I don’t think there’s evidence for that, and I think it’s a mistake on the one hand to say the Russia collusion theory was true which some opponents of Trump still can’t let go of.”
The United Kingdom-based Sky News reported Sunday that “British security officials” told them that the reports about the alleged bounty plot were accurate. And the Washington Post reported on Sunday that the alleged Russian bounties are thought to have resulted in deaths of a number of U.S. service members, citing “several people familiar with the matter” who said the intelligence resulted from recent detainee interrogations.
Two dozen U.S. service members have been killed in combat in Afghanistan since the start of 2019. The U.S. and the Taliban struck a shaky peace agreement in February.
John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, denied reports that Trump had been briefed on the alleged bounty plot, saying on Saturday that “I have confirmed that neither the President nor the Vice President were ever briefed on any intelligence alleged by the New York Times.”
Earlier in the day, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the U.S. “receives thousands of intelligence reports a day and they are subject to strict scrutiny” and that “the CIA Director, the National Security Adviser, and the Chief of Staff can all confirm that neither the President nor the Vice President were briefed on the alleged Russian bounty intelligence.”
Republican Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina tweeted that it is “imperative Congress get to the bottom” of the bounty reports. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the chair of the House Republican Conference, also called for answers. “If reporting about Russian bounties on US forces is true, the White House must explain: 1. Why weren’t the president or vice president briefed? Was the info in the PDB? 2. Who did know and when? 3. What has been done in response to protect our forces & hold Putin accountable?” she said.
Richard Grenell, the former acting director of National Intelligence, said the New York Times story wasn’t true when Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat, tweeted at Grenell daring him to confirm whether he did not tell Trump about the alleged plot.
“I never heard this,” Grenell said. “And it’s disgusting how you continue to politicize intelligence. You clearly don’t understand how raw intel gets verified. Leaks of partial information to reporters from anonymous sources is dangerous because people like you manipulate it for political gain.”
The Taliban denied accepting such bounties from Russia, and the Russian Embassy in the U.S. called the reporting “fake news.” Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said Saturday that Trump’s “entire presidency has been a gift to Putin, but this is beyond the pale.”
The New York Times reported that officials briefed on the matter said the bounty operation was run by Russian military intelligence’s Main Directorate of the General Staff, known as the GRU, and specifically by its Unit 29155. That GRU unit is also believed to be behind the 2018 Novichok nerve agent poisoning of former Russian military officer and British double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.
Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation named two other GRU units, Unit 26165 and 74455, as being behind Russia’s election interference efforts during the 2016 presidential election.