By Ben Gittleson and Jordyn Phelps, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — The White House faced mounting questions Tuesday about how much and how long President Donald Trump has known about reported Russian bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan, as lawmakers called on the administration to share more information and potentially take action.
The White House on Tuesday continued to provide briefings to select members of Congress on the intelligence, which a military official told ABC News showed that Russian intelligence officers had over the past year offered to pay Taliban militants to kill American troops.
But the Trump administration resisted providing the wider briefings requested by Democratic congressional leaders and neither Trump nor other White House officials were speaking or answering questions publicly on the matter Tuesday.
Republican lawmakers joined their Democratic colleagues in expressing concern that Russia’s actions may have potentially cost U.S. lives, forcing the White House to rush to contain the political fallout of the revelations. Democrats, sometimes joined by those on the other side of the aisle, have long alleged Trump has not responded forcefully enough to Russia’s provocative behavior.
Even as top U.S. intelligence and national security officials issued a series of rare, on-the-record statements emphasizing what they portrayed as the inconclusive nature of the intelligence, new reports called into question why Trump and the White House continued to insist he had not been briefed on the matter.
The Associated Press reported Monday, citing unnamed U.S. officials, that top White House officials were aware of the intelligence early last year and that the information had been included in Trump’s written intelligence briefing, known as the President’s Daily Brief, at the time. It was not clear if the president had actually read the briefing, though.
The AP also reported that John Bolton, who was national security adviser at the time, told colleagues that in March 2019 he had briefed Trump about the intelligence. Bolton declined to comment on the report, during an interview Tuesday with Sirius XM’s “The Joe Madison Show” Tuesday.
The New York Times, citing two unnamed officials, reported that Trump had received a written briefing on the topic in late February. Again, it was unclear if he had read the briefing materials.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Monday that the president had yet to be briefed on the intelligence, noting “the veracity of the underlying allegations continue to be evaluated.”
Asked if the information had not been in the President’s Daily Brief, too, she replied, “He was not personally briefed on the matter.”
The night before, Trump had tweeted, “Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me or” the vice president. Asked on Monday what Trump meant, McEnany replied, “I have no further details on the president’s private correspondence.”
On Monday night, top intelligence and national security officials released statements – apparently coordinated, using similar language – casting doubt on the reports. U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said the administration, including the National Security Council, had “been preparing should the situation warrant action.”
Like O’Brien, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and Central Intelligence Agency Director Gina Haspel had tough words for those who leak classified information to members of the press. Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman, referring to the Russian military unit said to have been involved, said that the “Department of Defense continues to evaluate intelligence that Russian GRU operatives were engaged in malign activity against United States and coalition forces in Afghanistan.”
Rather than brief members of Congress of both parties simultaneously as is standard, the White House has been offering small-group briefings split along party lines.
A group of Republican congressional allies were the first to be briefed Monday, followed by a small group of congressional Democrats on Monday morning and a separate briefing for Senate Republicans were also expected later in the morning.
House Democrats emerged from the briefing renewing their call for an all-member briefing from the intelligence community, with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer saying the briefing “was not as a substitute” for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer’s requests for a full briefing for all Members of Congress.
“The president called this a hoax publicly. Nothing in the briefing that we have just received led me to believe it is a hoax,” Hoyer said. “There may be different judgments as to the level of credibly but there was no assertion that the information we had was a hoax.”
While the lawmakers refused to discuss details of the briefing due to its secret nature, Schiff emphasized that the briefing fell short – complaining that the “right people to give the briefing really were not in the room.”
“We need to hear from the heads of the intelligence agencies about how do they assess the allegations,” Schiff said. “What can they tell us about the truth or falsity of these allegations? What can they tell us about steps they are taking or undertaking to vet the information they may have?”
Those briefing the House Democrats included National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, and three other senior National Security Council officials, according to an aide to Hoyer.
It’s not just political leaders demanding answers. So, too, is the father of a Marine killed in an April 2019 attack.
The father of Cpl. Robert Hendriks, 25, of Locust Valley, New York told the AP in an interview that U.S. officials should have immediately addressed the allegations, even if they were just a rumor.
“If this was kind of swept under the carpet as to not make it a bigger issue with Russia, and one ounce of blood was spilled when they knew this, I lost all respect for this administration and everything,” Erik Hendriks said.
The AP has reported that the attack that killed Hendriks and two other Marines in April 2019 is under investigation in connection to the alleged Russian bounties.
GOP Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska said Monday he had heard from many military families in his home state who were “livid.” He said Congress must focus on several questions.
“Number one: Who knew what, when, and did the commander in chief know? And if not, how the hell not? What is going on in the process?” he said. “And number two, what are we going to do to impose proportional cost in response?”
He said such a response would amount to Taliban and Russian intelligence operative “body bags.”
ABC News’ John Parkinson and Trish Turner contributed reporting.
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