House Dems headed to White House for briefing on Russian bounties

House Dems headed to White House for briefing on Russian bounties

Senior House Democrats left a White House briefing on Russian bounties disappointed on Tuesday, saying they were given “no substantive information” about allegations that the Kremlin paid Taliban militants to kill U.S. troops — and that President Donald Trump sat on the information for months.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who led a group of nearly a dozen Democrats to the White House early Tuesday, said Congress still needs to hear from the heads of various Intelligence agencies — not White House officials — on the stunning allegations. The Trump administration officials tasked with briefing the Democrats, Hoyer said, expressed their opinion of the allegations but didn’t share the underlying evidence.

“What we need is a briefing by the Intelligence community to give us their assessment of the credibility of this information,” Hoyer told reporters in a press conference in the Capitol after the briefing. “We did not receive any new substantive information about the intelligence.”

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who also attended, echoed Hoyer’s concerns. Schiff said he’s seeking an in-person briefing from the intel community as well as documentation.

“The right people to give the briefing really were not in the room,” Schiff said.

The briefing kicked off another day of rising fury among Democrats, who were shut out of a Monday White House briefing that included only a handful of Republican lawmakers while the White House and Trump offered conflicting versions of events. The bounty allegations, first reported Friday by The New York Times, have raised alarm in both parties about a grave threat to American troops — and demands for a U.S. response if the allegations bear out.

The briefing, according to participants, was led by White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and included Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, senior National Security Council aide Michael Ellis, top NSC counsel John Eisenberg and Thomas Williams, the NSC’s senior director for European and Russian Affairs.

The Russian bounty controversy has escalated as Trump insisted he was never briefed on the matter, despite news reports to the contrary, and took to Twitter to suggest it was a “hoax.”

Democrats say they were left with the impression that Trump was not briefed on the intelligence, though they declined to provide details. They continued to express skepticism about his claims of ignorance, and said even if the intelligence was not absolutely conclusive, Trump should have been briefed on it as he weighed diplomatic relations with Russia.

“If the president doesn’t read, the president doesn’t read, and they should know that by now,” Schiff said of the president’s daily intelligence reports. If you’re going to be on the phone with Vladimir Putin, this is something you ought to know.”

For Democrats, the episode is another example of Trump genuflecting to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Though the Times reported Trump was briefed on the intelligence as early as February, Trump has since sought Russia’s reentry into the G7 and spoken repeatedly with Putin by phone.

Democrats are now reiterating their demands for a full briefing beyond the group that attended on Tuesday — and to hear directly from intelligence officials. Hoyer said he repeatedly asked White House officials for such a briefing, but left without an assurance that it would happen.

The meeting came just hours after the New York Times reported on Monday that 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. And White House officials defending the president seem to have adopted a strategy of parsing words — saying that Trump wasn’t briefed because the information wasn’t vocally conveyed to him, discounting the written intelligence briefing the president receives.

Other Democrats in attendance Tuesday included Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith (Wash.) and 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).

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.

In a statement overnight, 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.

“Nevertheless, the administration, including the National Security Council staff, have been preparing should the situation warrant action,” O’Brien said.

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.

On Tuesday morning, Trump continued his strategy of highlighting pundits raising questions about the veracity of the intelligence, retweeting a dismissive comment from Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera who mischaracterized the Times reporting of the episode.

But the White House has so far resisted calls from 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 a “Gang of 8” briefing — 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.

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