US President Donald Trump still has not been briefed on the allegation that Russia offered bounties for killing American soldiers in Afghanistan, according to White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany.
It has been days since The New York Times first revealed the existence of US intelligence indicating Russia had secretly offered to reward Taliban-linked militants for successfully targeting US and other coalition forces.
The paper claimed the Trump administration was aware of the intelligence “months ago” – and it said Mr Trump had been briefed.
But White House officials, including the President himself, have vehemently denied he was ever told about it.
Late yesterday, Mr Trump tweeted that he had just spoken to “intel”, who told him he had not been briefed on the Russia allegations because “they did not find this information credible”.
He said the story was “possibly another fabricated Russia hoax”.
At today’s White House media briefing, reporters got stuck into that explanation, and asked whether the The New York Times’ story had prompted intelligence officials to finally give the President a briefing on the matter in the last 24 hours.
“I know you said that President Trump was never briefed on these reports about the Russian bounties and whatnot, but can you say that he was briefed today?” one reporter asked Ms McEnany.
“Look, I’ll say this. The US receives thousands of reports a day on intelligence, and they are subject to strict scrutiny. While the White House does not routinely comment on alleged intelligence or internal deliberations, the CIA director, national security adviser and chief of staff can all confirm that neither the President nor the Vice President (Mike Pence) were briefed on the alleged Russian bounty intelligence,” the Press Secretary said.
“But has he since been briefed, since all of these reports came out?” the reporter pressed.
“So, let me back up and say this. That there is no consensus within the intelligence community on these allegations and, in effect, there are dissenting opinions from some in the intelligence community with regards to the veracity of what’s being reported. And the veracity of the underlying allegations continues to be evaluated,” she replied.
Ms McEnany said any intelligence gathered by US agencies “would not be elevated to the President until it was verified”.
So in other words, no, Mr Trump still had not been briefed.
That answer led to a few obvious follow-up questions.
“President Trump tweeted overnight, ‘Intel just spoke to me.’ What specifically does that mean? Who spoke to him? Did that person, in fact, give the President a full briefing in that conversation?” another reported asked.
“I have no further details on the President’s private correspondence,” Ms McEnany replied, shutting the question down.
Further complicating the situation is the fact that other US politicians with less seniority than Mr Trump have been briefed on the matter.
Today, a select group of congressional leaders with the necessary clearance visited the White House for a briefing with Mr Trump’s Chief of Staff, Mark Meadows, and senior intelligence officials.
On top of that, the US reportedly shared its intelligence with the United Kingdom last week, as the alleged bounties also targeted its soldiers.
As things stand then, other American politicians and even a foreign government have been briefed on the situation, but the President has not.
“Was he upset that this intelligence was reportedly shared with the British government, but not him?” a reporter asked Ms McEnany.
“I have no further comment on that, other than to just point you back to the two assertions that I made previously,” she responded.
“Intelligence is verified before it reaches the President of the United States. And in this case, it was not verified.”
“So you say that he wasn’t briefed. Does that mean it wasn’t in the PDB either?” another reporter asked.
Some quick context – the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) is a written document summarising the latest high level intelligence. It’s given to the President and a small group of other officials, such as the national security adviser and secretary of state, each day.
It has previously been reported that Mr Trump rarely reads the PDB, and prefers to receive it in oral form.
“He was not personally briefed on the matter. That is all I can share with you today, is that both the CIA director, the national security adviser and the chief of staff can all confirm neither the President nor the Vice President was briefed,” Ms McEnany repeated.
“I understand that is has to be verified, but not everything in his daily briefings or in the Presidential Daily Brief – that’s the written document – is airtight. They let the President know what they are hearing. That’s why it’s intelligence,” CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins pointed out.
“So why would that not have been something that rose to that level if, you know, we’re sharing it with other countries?”
“The National Security Council and the intelligence community constantly evaluate intelligence reports, and they brief the President as necessary,” Ms McEnany said.
Collins asked what Mr Trump was going to do to “hold Russia accountable”, and whether he was still planning to invite Vladimir Putin to the Group of 7 summit later this year.
Russia was kicked out of the then-G8 in 2014 over its annexation of Crimea.
“I won’t get ahead of the President on actions, but with regard to Russia, this President has been extremely strong on Russia – imposing sanctions on hundreds of Russian individuals, expelling dozens of diplomats, closing two Russian consulates, withdrawing from the INF Treaty, and several other actions,” Ms McEnany argued.
“So who is disputing it in the intelligence community?” Collins asked.
“I have no further notifications for you, other than to tell you there’s no consensus and there are dissenting opinions from some within the intelligence community,” said Ms McEnany.
“So you guys do not think this is true? You don’t think this report is true?” Collins pressed.
“I’m telling you this, that there is no consensus in the intelligence community, and that the dissenting opinions from some in the intelligence community exist,” Ms McEnany repeated.
Reuters correspondent Jeff Mason asked whether Mr Trump had a “specific message” for Russia in response to the allegations.
“A specific message for Moscow? No, because he has not been briefed on the matter. As I noted, there’s no consensus among the intelligence community, and there are in fact dissenting opinions,” Ms McEnany said.
As the questioning continued, Ms McEnany shifted her focus to an extended criticism of The Times for publishing its story in the first place.
“For those of you that are always taking The New York Times at their word, they erroneously reported that the President was briefed on this. He was not briefed on this, and neither was the Vice President,” she said.
“So before buying into, full-fledged, a narrative from The New York Times that falsely stated something about the President, that you would wait for the facts to come out.”
“I just want to be clear, there are congressional leaders who are being briefed on the Russia situation, but the President has still not been briefed on the situation?” a reporter asked, just to be sure.
“Look, this has been asked and answered. The President is briefed on verified intelligence,” Ms McEnany reiterated.
“Again, I would just point you back to the absolutely irresponsible decision of The New York Times to falsely report that he was briefed on something that he, in fact, was not briefed on. “And I really think that it’s time for The New York Times to step back and ask themselves why they’ve been wrong so often.”
She then reeled off a list of three stories and one opinion piece The Times had published during Mr Trump’s presidency which contained factual errors.
“It is inexcusable, the failed Russia reporting of The New York Times. And I think it’s time that The New York Times, and also The Washington Post, hand back their Pulitzers,” she said, before abruptly ending the briefing.
A few hours later, The Times published a new story claiming Mr Trump got a written briefing on the intelligence in late February.
It cited two officials in the administration, who said the allegations against Russia were included in one of the President’s PDBs. One of those officials specified it was the PDB on February 27.
One of the congressional representatives briefed by the White House today, Republican Jim Banks, posted on Twitter after the meeting, accusing The Times of publishing a “hit piece” and claiming the paper had blood on its hands.
Another Republican, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, seemed less interested in defending the President.
“As a member of the Intelligence Committee, we don’t do anything to ever confirm any facts outside of the classified context. So I want to be clear that I’m not confirming any facts,” Mr Sasse said, immediately before very clearly implying that he believed the bounty intelligence was accurate.
“I have heard from a lot of Nebraskan military families this weekend, and they’re livid. They have a right to be livid,” he said.
“This isn’t a time for politics. This is a time to focus on the two things Congress should be asking and looking at. Number one, who knew what and when, and did the commander-in-chief know? And if not, how the hell not?
“And number two, what are we going to do to impose proportional cost in response? In a situation like this, that would mean Taliban and (Russian) body bags.”
Ms McEnany also spoke to Fox News today. During that interview, she fired back at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, for suggesting Mr Trump has been reluctant to act against Russia because it “has something” on him.
“Nancy Pelosi is entirely off base. The President has been very tough on Russia – sanctioning innumerable Russian targets; closing Russian consulates,” Ms McEnany said.
“She’s talking about alleged intelligence that was never briefed to the President, and what’s she doing? She’s taking a report based on anonymous sourcing that was just dead wrong. The New York Times was wrong, believe it or not.
“And she’s politicising it. So the only person playing politics here is the Speaker of the House, and it’s truly despicable.”