A group of nearly a dozen House Democrats will head to the White House Tuesday morning for a briefing on intelligence that Russia provided bounties to Taliban militants to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The meeting comes just hours after the New York Times reported on Monday that President Donald Trump was briefed on the intelligence in late February, earlier than previously reported. Trump has denied knowing about the intelligence despite it being included in a written briefing for the president in February, according to the Times.
The No. 2 House Democrat, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), will lead the group this morning. Hoyer has a personal relationship with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who called the Maryland Democrat Sunday to begin arranging the briefing.
Other House Democrats going include Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (Calif.), Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (N.Y.) and Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith (Wash.). A mix of Democrats who serve on the Foreign Affairs and Armed Services panels — Reps. Brad Sherman (Calif.), Gregory Meeks (N.Y.), Mikie Sherrill (N.J.), Abigail Spanberger (Va.), Elissa Slotkin (Mich.), Ruben Gallego (Ariz.) and Bill Keating (Mass).
“I think we have to understand what exactly is in the intelligence, and then understand what, if anything, the White House has done about it. They need to be forthcoming about that,” Slotkin, a former CIA officer, told reporters Monday.
“I need to see the intelligence myself, but if this is serious intelligence, based on how the Russians operate, I think we have to question whether this represents a significant policy shift and why,” she added.
The White House will meet separately on Tuesday with a group of Senate Republicans after briefing a handpicked group of House Republicans Monday. A larger group of senators was given access to intelligence documents related to the Russian bounties late Monday, and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) quickly rebutted Trump’s claim that the news stories were a “hoax.”
“And if you continue ignoring the facts, more soldiers and marines are going to die.,” Murphy said.
Top White House officials have denied that Trump was ever briefed on the intelligence, despite detailed reporting to the contrary. In a statement overnight, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said the intelligence didn’t rise to the level of informing the president, despite reports of the administration being aware of the bounties for months.
“Because the allegations in recent press articles have not been verified or substantiated by the Intelligence Community, President Trump had not been briefed on the items,” O’Brien said.
“Nevertheless, the administration, including the National Security Council staff, have been preparing should the situation warrant action.”
Despite O’Brien’s statement, the intelligence community found the bounty claims credible enough to include in a classified CIA intelligence document distributed to U.S. officials across the world, according to the Times.
O’Brien’s comments came after a day of shifting explanations from Trump and the White House. Though top officials said on Saturday Trump hadn’t been briefed, Trump tweeted Sunday night that “intel” had informed him the allegations were not “credible.” Yet by Monday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany continued to insist the president hadn’t been briefed, even as briefings were being arranged for lawmakers.
But the White House has so far resisted calls from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who have demanded all members in both chambers receive a briefing from the administration. Pelosi and Trump have a particularly frayed relationship and the two haven’t spoken since October, when Democrats walked out of a White House briefing on Syria after the president insulted the speaker.
Democrats have sharply criticized what they say is further proof of the Trump administration’s clear politicization of what are typically bipartisan intelligence briefings relayed to Congressional leaders and pertinent members in both chambers, regardless of political party.
Instead of briefings — which would include leaders of both the House and Senate and the Intelligence committees — or all members on certain committees, a mishmash group of lawmakers are being summoned to the White House, divided into groups based on whether they’re Republicans or Democrats.
Still, senior Democrats and Republicans said Monday they would continue to press the White House for answers on the bounty intelligence — including if and when the president was briefed; why Trump was not informed, if ineed he was not; and how the administration plans to retaliate against Russia if the reports are true.
But how the two parties seek to message the controversy will be a different matter — Democrats have long accused the president of being soft on Russia and have questioned Trump’s apparent admiration of its authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin.
Though Trump’s allies say he’s been tough on Russia, Trump has repeatedly accepted Putin’s word — over the verdict of U.S. intelligence agencies — about Russian interference in the 2016 election, and he’s helped promote baseless Russian narratives about a Ukrainian plot in the election instead. Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence leaders say Russia is poised to interfere again in the 2020 election and has worked to destabilize western alliances.
Republicans, meanwhile, have turned their outrage more towards administration officials, questioning the veracity of the intelligence and whether the president was even briefed on the claims, despite news reports to the contrary.
“It is important to be cautious on intelligence writ large, because when it’s proven to not be accurate, it can lead to things like a war or other measures that proved to be counterproductive,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters.
“You pull out one little piece and you put it in the public domain and you act like it was some smoking-gun situation. So that’s one of the reasons I just don’t comment on reports such as these.”
Jake Sherman contributed to this report.
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