Top Democrats pushed back on White House assertions that President Donald Trump was completely unaware of intelligence reports suggesting Russian officials offered financial incentives to Afghanistan insurgents to kill U.S. troops deployed to the region, saying that evidence shows the information was made available to the commander in chief.
Following a White House briefing for a small group of Democratic defense leaders on the issue early Tuesday morning, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., said that allegations that Russians paid bounties for the deaths of American service members are full of “conflicting intelligence” and “conflicting opinions,” putting its veracity in doubt.
“What I can say is that there’s certainly evidence of Russian involvement in Afghanistan,” he told reporters during a press event later in the day. “And I think we should do more to pursue that, and do more to hold the Russians accountable for their activity.”
But Smith dismissed public assertions by the president and his supporters that the information was too low-level or unresolved to rise to the highest levels of the White House.
“What we heard today, it was information that the president should have known about. And based on what we were told today, it seems to me like he did know about it,” he said. “It’d be hard for me to imagine that he wasn’t at least aware of the allegation.”
Since last Friday, when the New York Times reported that White House officials have known since March about allegations of the Russian bounties, administration officials and Trump himself have denied that the president had any exposure to the information.
White House press secretary Kayleigh Mcenany on Monday said there was “no consensus among the intelligence community” on the allegations and such information “would not be elevated to the president until it was verified.”
But Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va. — a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who attended the Tuesday briefing — said to CNN that information presented to lawmakers shows clearly that top administration officials were aware of the reports.
“What concerns me most about these reports is that the Russian government was putting bounties on the heads of U.S. soldiers, and our government took no action,” she said.
“At the time when the president of the United States was still lobbying for Russia to be included in a G-7 summit, knowing that his government was responsible for the potential death of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. It’s just unthinkable to me.”
Republican lawmakers received a similar briefing from senior administration officials Monday evening, and left saying they have clear concerns about Russian actions.
Committee ranking member Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and committee member Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., released a joint statement saying that they expect further investigation and communication with Congress about the controversy.
“It has been clear for some time that Russia does not wish us well in Afghanistan,” they wrote. “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.”
Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., also attended that briefing and blasted the New York Times for “politicizing” the issue, saying that “it’s impossible to finish the investigation” into whether U.S. troops were put in danger. Smith disagreed with that sentiment.
“There is certainly more information that we can get about the veracity of this, whether or not it happened, and whether or not it is ongoing,” he said.
“And more importantly, we can get and should get clearer answers about how the president and his administration responded to this information and why they responded in the way that they did.”
News reports in recent days have indicated that intelligence reports about the Russian bounties may have dated back as far as last year. At least 20 American service members have been killed in Afghanistan since the start of 2019.
Russian officials have denied the claims.
Late Monday night, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman released a statement saying DoD officials continue to “evaluate intelligence that Russian GRU operatives were engaged in malign activity against United States and coalition forces in Afghanistan. "
As of Monday night, however, DoD “has no corroborating evidence to validate the recent allegations found in open-source reports. Regardless, we always take the safety and security of our forces in Afghanistan — and around the world — most seriously and therefore continuously adopt measures to prevent harm from potential threats.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.