WASHINGTON: Democrats on Tuesday questioned President Donald Trump’s professed ignorance of an alleged Russian program to pay the Taliban bounties for killing US troops and demanded more information from intelligence officials on the issue.
Senior Democratic lawmakers were briefed at the White House by Chief of Staff Mark Meadows but came away unsatisfied with the explanations they received, insisting Russia had to be held to account.
“As we look at these allegations, number one, the president of the US should not be inviting Russia into the G-7 or G-8,” Democrat Adam Schiff said in reference to Trump’s May 30 statement suggesting he would ask Moscow to rejoin the elite powers group.
“We should be considering what sanctions are appropriate to further detour Russia’s malign activities,” he said.
Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, said he was concerned over whether the president was being kept informed about crucial intelligence.
“There may be a reluctance to brief the president on things he doesn’t want to hear, and that may be truer with respect to (Vladimir) Putin and Putin’s Russia,” said Schiff.
“Many of us do not understand his affinity for that autocratic ruler who means our nation ill.”
Trump labelled the reports of the Russia bounties for US and coalition troops in Afghanistan “phoney” when they first emerged last week.
“Nobody briefed or told me,” about the bounty program, he said, which appears to have existed at least from last year, when the US and the Taliban negotiated a peace deal that was finally signed on Feb 29, 2020.
Trump said on Sunday that he had not been informed of the program because US intelligence “did not find this info credible.”
According to The New York Times, however, intelligence on the Russian bounty program was described in the president’s written daily brief in late February.
With Trump under pressure, late Monday three top intelligence officials – Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, CIA Director Gina Haspel, and White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien – as well as the Pentagon – all issued statements that did not deny the Russian bounty story but insisted the intelligence had not yet been substantiated.
Haspel said such intelligence would normally have been shared “throughout the national security community” as well as with US allies.
O’Brien, though, said that because the intelligence had not been verified, “President Trump had not been briefed on the items”.
Schiff and other senior Democrats said that they needed a direct briefing from US intelligence chiefs on the issue, saying what they heard from the president’s staff in the White House Tuesday was inadequate.
“We did not receive any new substantive information,” said Steny Hoyer, the number two Democrat in the House of Representatives.
“This briefing was the White House personnel telling us their perspective. I think we knew the White House perspective,” he said.
“What we need to know is the intelligence perspective,” he said.