White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany addressed a flurry of questions on Monday about President Donald Trump’s head-scratching response to recent news reports that the Russian government paid bounties to Afghan militants who killed American troops.
Many of these reports said Trump and the White House have known about the bounties for months but haven’t condemned them publicly or taken any retaliatory steps against Moscow. McEnany said at a news conference on Monday that Trump hasn’t ever been briefed about the situation, even after the story broke over the weekend, while the President was golfing in Virginia.
McEnany repeatedly tried to undermine and discredit the bombshell story, which was first reported by The New York Times. Its story was quickly corroborated and expanded upon by CNN, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. A handful of overseas news outlets also reported that US officials had briefed the United Kingdom about the threat to British troops.
But while making her case, McEnany appeared to contradict Trump on two key points, and also offered explanations about intelligence-gathering that didn’t make sense to seasoned experts.
Did Trump know?
In a Twitter post Sunday night, Trump said, “Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me or (Vice President Mike Pence).” The post appeared to confirm that Trump had spoken with US intelligence officials and they reported to him that they had determined that the allegations about Russian bounties were not credible.
But McEnany said Monday that Trump “has not been briefed on this matter.” Her denial raised immediate questions, considering reports that US officials had briefed their British counterparts.
She also said the US government is still determining the veracity of the underlying intelligence, which undercuts Trump’s suggestion that US intelligence agencies had already deemed it unreliable.
“There is no consensus within the intelligence community on these allegations,” McEnany said, a phrase that she repeated multiple times during her news conference. “In fact, there are dissenting opinions from some in the intelligence community with regard to the veracity of what’s being reported. And the veracity of the underlying allegations continue to be evaluated.”
McEnany did not outright deny the underlying allegations against Russia, but repeatedly tried to cast doubt about the information. She criticized the news organizations that published the articles and said several times that there was “no consensus” among US intelligence agencies.
Her efforts drew some quick rebukes from national security and intelligence experts on Twitter.
“This smells like the WH trying to mislead the public,” said CNN national security analyst Susan Hennessey, who has been a sharp critic of the Trump administration. “It is common for different intel agencies to attach different degrees of confidence based on the manner on underlying intel; that isn’t the same as there being disagreement over whether something happened.”
National security experts also balked at McEnany’s assertion that intelligence about such a sensitive matter would “not be elevated to the President until it was verified.” The point of these briefings, experts say, is to keep the president abreast of new intelligence and insights, which can be fast-changing, so briefings include assessments about the credibility of the information.
The New York Times has reported that Trump typically doesn’t read the Presidential Daily Brief, a highly classified intelligence report prepared for the President each day. On Monday, McEnany declined to say if the intelligence about Russia had ever been included in Trump’s Presidential Daily Brief.
McEnany later said, “This President has been extremely strong on Russia,” pointing to economic sanctions and Trump’s withdrawal from an arms treaty. But this cherry-picked narrative ignores dozens of other actions and comments by Trump where he has gone out of his way to praise Russian President Vladimir Putin or roll back punitive measures against the Kremlin.
Throughout her news conference, McEnany spent more time criticizing American journalists than condemning Russia for its aggressive moves against US interests, which includes the bounties in Afghanistan, election interference in 2016, and military actions in Syria and Ukraine.