First President Trump denied knowing about it. Then he called it a possible “hoax.” Next, the White House attacked the news media. And now an unnamed intelligence official is to blame.
The one thing Mr. Trump and his top officials have not done is to address the substance of intelligence reports that Russia paid bounties to Taliban-affiliated fighters to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan, or what they might do in response.
Nor has the White House — amid the denials, qualifications and accusations — publicly discussed what that intelligence could mean for Mr. Trump’s efforts to thaw relations with Russia and court President Vladimir V. Putin despite Moscow’s continued aggression toward the United States and its allies.
On Wednesday, Mr. Trump repeated his claim that he was “never briefed” about the intelligence, which his aides called unverified but which many U.S. intelligence officials deemed credible. Officials say it appeared in the president’s daily written intelligence briefing in late February. Writing on Twitter, Mr. Trump called stories about the bounties “a made up Fake News Media Hoax started to slander me & the Republican Party.”
His national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, said on Fox News that Mr. Trump’s C.I.A. briefer, the person who delivers an in-person briefing to him every few days, had not brought it to his attention.
“The president was not briefed, because at the time of these allegations, they were uncorroborated,” Mr. O’Brien said. “And as a result, the president’s career C.I.A. briefer decided not to brief him.”
The administration has not publicly acknowledged that the information was provided to Mr. Trump in his written briefing, and has not responded to questions about whether they were saying he simply chose not to read it.
But it would be unusual, if not unprecedented, for intelligence with grave implications to be withheld from the president on the grounds that it lacked definitive consensus. Former Obama administration officials have said that even the intelligence that formed the basis of the May 2011 raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden was inconclusive and disputed among national security officials.
Mr. O’Brien did not name the C.I.A. briefer but said she was “an outstanding officer.” He added, “I certainly support her decision.”
The person who usually handles that job is Beth Sanner, a C.I.A. analyst with three decades of experience. Ms. Sanner is said to have a good relationship with Mr. Trump, but the White House has cited her briefings before when deflecting responsibility for a crisis.
In May, Mr. Trump conceded that he had been warned about the emerging coronavirus in a late January briefing, but said he was told “it was not a big deal.” Intelligence officials have acknowledged that it was Ms. Sanner who provided that briefing and claimed that she underplayed the threat from the virus.
But in that case, there were many other warnings Mr. Trump ignored from both government officials and health experts, as well as former officials speaking publicly and reports in the news media.
Former officials say that unlike his predecessors, Mr. Trump often does not read the President’s Daily Brief, the summary prepared for him by the intelligence agencies. And he registers only information relayed to him orally, a fact that administration officials acknowledged in a briefing for lawmakers this week.
Even then, officials have said, Mr. Trump is often unfocused and easily distracted during his briefing. Ms. Sanner, who began briefing the president last year, has acquired a reputation for effectively presenting information to Mr. Trump in ways that engage him.
In his interview on Wednesday, Mr. O’Brien repeated White House assertions that intelligence officials lacked “consensus” about the bounties, which was based on intelligence that included intercepted electronic data showing large financial transfers from Russia’s military intelligence agency to a Taliban-linked account.
Mr. O’Brien said that public disclosure of the matter by leakers would make it more difficult to reach a definitive conclusion about the reports. “It may be impossible to get to the bottom of it because someone decided to leak to hurt the president rather than uphold their obligations to the American people,” he said.
Like other officials, including the White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who has criticized The New York Times and other outlets for reporting on the matter, and the president himself, Mr. O’Brien did not even raise the issue of Russian behavior, including what officials believed to be its longtime support for the Taliban. Nor did he suggest how the United States might respond if Mr. Trump accepted the intelligence as accurate.
The Times has reported that investigators are said to be focused on at least two attacks on American troops in Afghanistan, including one bombing and a firefight in April 2019 near Bagram Air Base that killed three Marines.
Mr. O’Brien was among several senior Trump officials at a White House briefing on Tuesday for House Democrats, which lawmakers complained was hampered by the absence of any intelligence professionals who could walk them through the nuances of the competing strands of intelligence.
“They just wanted to make sure that we knew that the president didn’t know anything,” said Representative Adam Smith, Democrat of Washington and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who attended the meeting. “I cannot recall under Bush, Obama, Clinton, them wanting to come out and say, ‘Look, the president didn’t know anything.’”
Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, did most of the talking in the nearly two-hour session. But Mr. Meadows, a former North Carolina congressman, did not seem to understand the nuances of intelligence and so could not clearly explain some of the more complicated issues that lawmakers raised, according to people briefed on the meeting.
The director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, repeatedly told lawmakers the events in question happened well before he took over his post in late May from the former acting director, Richard Grenell.
The lawmakers, including Representative Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, a former C.I.A. officer, pushed back and asked why, after the assessment was included in the President’s Daily Brief in late February, Mr. Trump was not given a heads-up before any of the five or six phone calls he subsequently had with Mr. Putin, including one call in which Mr. Trump invited the Russian leader to a Group of 7 meeting.
Sticking to talking points, White House officials acknowledged that the C.I.A. had concluded that a Russian bounty plot existed, but did not explain in detail the supporting evidence behind the assessment.
That evidence, The Times has reported, included detainee interrogations, the recovery of about $500,000 from a Taliban-related target and intercepts of electronic communications showing financial transfers between the Russian military intelligence unit and Afghan intermediaries.
Instead, the White House officials focused on a strong written dissent by the National Security Agency, which assessed that it did not have information to corroborate the C.I.A.’s conclusion.
But the House Democrats were not briefed in detail on the intercepts of the electronic communications showing the financial transfers, which other U.S. officials say have reconciled many of the differences between the C.I.A. and National Security Agency assessments. They received no explanation for why the material was not addressed.
A member of Congress familiar with the intelligence file said that it did not address when or how Mr. Trump was briefed on the material. Nor did it detail any connection to specific U.S. or coalition deaths in Afghanistan. The lawmaker said that gaps remained in the intelligence community’s understanding of the overall program, including its precise motive, which officials have speculated could range from revenge to forcing the United States out of Afghanistan more quickly.
At the White House briefings, there was some discussion about whether Iran might have paid bounties to the Haqqani network to target U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. Those reports appear to have surfaced after the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, who led the powerful Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, in a U.S. drone strike in early January at Baghdad’s international airport. Iran had vowed to avenge General Suleimani’s death.
With lawmakers in both parties asking for more information, Gina Haspel, the C.I.A. director, and Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, the head of the National Security Agency, along with Mr. Ratcliffe, were scheduled to deliver on Thursday the highest-level briefing yet about the American intelligence to a select group of bipartisan House and Senate leaders, known as the Gang of Eight.
Asked on Wednesday about the Russian bounties, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said U.S. intelligence officials “handled this incredibly well” to minimize risk to American troops in Afghanistan. He also said that it was “nothing new” that Russia had acted counter to American interests in Afghanistan, including selling small arms to militants, and that the Taliban had long received funding from foreign nations, including Russia and Iran.
“We took this seriously. We handled it appropriately,” Mr. Pompeo said. “The president has been consistently aware of the challenges that Russia presents to us, and he is aware of the risk in Afghanistan.”
Mr. Pompeo refused to directly address whether Mr. Trump should have been told about intelligence indicating the Russian bounty offers.
Nicholas Fandos, Adam Goldman and Lara Jakes contributed reporting.