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Trump faces bipartisan calls for answers on Russian-offered bounties

29 Jun 2020 TheHill

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are demanding answers after a flurry of reports revealed the intelligence community concluded months ago that Russia offered bounties to incentivize Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan.

The uproar includes a chorus of Republicans who are typically reticent to confront President Trump, who has sought to deflect blame and responsibility by arguing he was not briefed on the intelligence that he claims is not credible.

But congressional Republicans and Democrats — calling the reported Russian operation “egregious” and “disturbing” — say Trump’s explanations only raise more questions that the administration must answer immediately.

“Anything with any hint of credibility that would endanger our servicemembers, much less put a bounty on their lives, to me, should have been briefed immediately to the commander-in-chief and a plan to deal with that situation,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (Texas), the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, who is retiring from Congress at the end of this term.

Thornberry, who added that the bipartisan “insistence to see the intelligence” is “even stronger non-publicly” than it has been publicly, echoed other military leaders who have expressed incredulousness that such intelligence did not reach the commander-in-chief.

On Monday, the White House briefed at least seven Republicans: Thornberry, House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Michael McCaul (Texas) and Reps. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), Andy Biggs (Ariz.), Jim Banks (Ind.), Adam Kinzinger (Ill.) and Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), a source familiar with the meeting said. 

Democratic leaders are calling for briefings for the full House and Senate.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sent a letter Monday to Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Ratcliffe and CIA Director Gina Haspel requesting a full-House briefing, saying that “Congress and the country need answers now.” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) released his own statement, making the same request for the two intelligence leaders to immediately brief senators.

Thornberry and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) have also demanded a briefing from the Pentagon for their full committee this week, but Thornberry and a Democratic committee spokesperson said they have not received a response from the Defense Department.

“If the reports are true, that the administration knew about this Russian operation and did nothing, they have broken the trust of those who serve and the commitment to their families to ensure their loved one’s safety,” Smith said in a statement Monday. “It is imperative that the House Armed Services Committee receive detailed answers from the Department of Defense.”

The Pentagon “has received the invitation” from Smith and Thornberry and “is working to address the request,” department spokesman Jessica Maxwell said. The department declined to comment on the reports about the intelligence.

On the Senate side, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, would not comment specifically on the bounty intelligence, but said “the targeting of our troops by foreign adversaries via proxies is a well-established threat.” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), meanwhile, pledged to “work with President Trump on a strong response” if reports are true.

Both Rubio and Inhofe have faced calls from Democrats to hold hearings. 

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), an Armed Services Committee member, wrote Rubio and Inhofe a letter on Sunday calling for joint hearings, while fellow committee member Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) wrote her own letter to Inhofe requesting an open hearing.

The New York Times first reported Friday that the 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 coalition forces in Afghanistan last year.  

Trump was briefed on the intelligence and that officials had deliberated potential response options but that the White House had not authorized any further action, the report said.

The Washington Post then reported Sunday that intelligence assessments concluded the Russian bounties led to the deaths of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Other news outlets have since confirmed the Times reporting, with some newspapers citing British government officials, who were briefed by the U.S. last week on the intelligence.

The United States has previously accused Russia of supporting the Taliban by providing weapons, but lawmakers saying incentivizing the murder of U.S. troops would be a heinous escalation.

Statements by the White House and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) have disputed that Trump was briefed but have not addressed the credibility of the intelligence.

Shortly after the Post’s Sunday report, Trump claimed the intelligence was not 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 late Sunday night. “Possibly another fabricated Russia Hoax, maybe by the Fake News @nytimesbooks, wanting to make Republicans look bad!!!”

Trump, however, stands alone in questioning the accuracy of the intelligence. Later Monday afternoon, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said there was “no consensus” and “dissenting opinions” within the intelligence community about the credibility of the information, remarks that are markedly different from Trump’s claims.

She did not answer questions about whether elements of the intelligence were included in Trump’s Daily Presidential Briefing. 

Some of Trump’s most staunch allies are calling for answers about the reports.

“Imperative Congress get to the bottom of recent media reports that Russian GRU units in Afghanistan have offered to pay the Taliban to kill American soldiers with the goal of pushing America out of the region,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tweeted in part.

Prior to getting briefed Monday, Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican, tweeted that the “White House must explain” why Trump and Vice President Pence weren’t briefed, who did know and when, and what the response has been “to protect our forces & hold Putin accountable.”

Banks, though, after the briefing put the blame on The New York Times, accusing the newspaper of reporting intelligence that was still under investigation and compromising efforts to probe it.

“The real scandal: We’ll likely never know the truth,” Banks tweeted. “Because the @nytimes used unconfirmed intel in an ONGOING investigation into targeted killing of American soldiers in order to smear the President. The blood is on their hands.”

The news also comes at a time when Trump’s withdrawal deal with the Taliban remains precarious as high violence levels persist in Afghanistan. Republicans were already skeptical of the agreement, saying the Taliban cannot be trusted to keep a peace deal.

The U.S. military has said it is down to 8,600 troops in line with the agreement to get to that level by mid-July. But military officials have insisted any further drawdown will be based on conditions on the ground that are not yet met, even as Trump pushes for a speedy withdrawal.

Trump has also faced criticism from Democrats about his coziness to Russia, where he has sought to accommodate and praise the country despite its efforts to destabilize the West. 

In June, after the intelligence reportedly came to light within the U.S. government, Trump again sought to invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to the Group of Seven (G-7) Summit this year. The move was rejected by other foreign leaders. Russia had previously belonged to the group, then called the Group of Eight, but was kicked out in 2014 after it illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, territory it continues to control today.  

Trump has also previously indicated that he believes Putin’s denials about interfering in the 2016 presidential election, despite the intelligence community’s conclusion that the Kremlin used disinformation campaigns on social media to sow discord and cyberattacks to derail the Clinton campaign during the heated presidential race.

Russia has denied the newest allegations as well.

“You know, maybe I can say it's a little bit rude, but this is 100 percent bullshit. It's an undiplomatic thing, but it's bullshit,"”Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told NBC News on Monday.

With Russia now reportedly accused of offering bounties against U.S. troops, some Republicans are calling for action against Moscow.

“If intelligence reports are verified that Russia or any other country is placing bounties on American troops,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said, “then they need to be treated as a state sponsor of terrorism.”

Morgan Chalfant contributed.

 

Original Link: https://thehill.com/policy/national-security/505125-trump-faces-bipartisan-calls-for-answers-on-russian-offered-bounties

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