U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) speaks to reporters as House Democrats respond to a White House briefing on reports Russia paid the Taliban bounties to kill U.S. troops during a news conference following the briefing at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., June 30, 2020.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters
House Democrats came out of a closed-door White House briefing Tuesday taking swings at President Donald Trump‘s response to reports that Russia paid bounties to Taliban-linked militants in Afghanistan to target and kill U.S. troops.
“The president called this a hoax publicly. Nothing in the briefing that we have just received led me to believe it is a hoax,” Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, told reporters after leaving the briefing.
“There may be different judgments as to the level of credibility [of the reports], but there was no assertion that the information we had was a hoax,” he added.
House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., another attendee in the briefing, said, “I find it inexplicable in light of these very public allegations that the president hasn’t come before the country and assured the American people that he will get to the bottom of whether Russians are putting a bounty on the heads of American troops.”
The briefing for the group of less than a dozen Democrats, all of whom have prior experience in national security or intelligence issues, came a day after the White House briefed a separate group of Republicans on the reported findings that a Russian military intelligence unit covertly offered Afghan militants rewards for killing coalition forces.
One Republican, Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, left that briefing with harsh words for The New York Times, which broke the story.
“The real scandal: We’ll likely never know the truth … Because the @nytimes used unconfirmed intel in an ONGOING investigation into targeted killing of American soldiers in order to smear the President,” Banks tweeted. “The blood is on their hands.”
At a Tuesday morning presser, however, GOP Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas said he “of course” has additional questions after being briefed by the White House.
Hoyer said he told chief of staff Mark Meadows, who invited him to the briefing, that he wanted to hear directly from intelligence sources about the “very, very troubling” reports.
“We did not receive any new substantive information” from the briefing, Hoyer said.
House Foreign Affairs Committee chief Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., concurred, adding, “I think the American people deserve to know why doesn’t the president question [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, why doesn’t the president condemn Putin.”
“I mean, for God’s sake, these are our soldiers, and if we’re not going to protect them what are we going to do,” Engel said.
The White House did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment on the Democrats’ remarks.
Democrats have clamored for answers from the White House on the alleged U.S. intelligence assessments, which were first reported by the Times and later confirmed by other outlets.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have both called for the Trump administration to brief all members of their respective chambers about the reports. Those requests have not yet been granted.
The White House has maintained that Trump, who within the past year has said he wanted Russia to rejoin the alliance of world leaders known as the Group of 7, had not been briefed on the reported intelligence findings.
As recently as Monday afternoon, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters that Trump “has not been briefed on the matter” — even after Trump tweeted Sunday night, “Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me.”
Trump in that tweet suggested the reports are “possibly another fabricated Russia Hoax” intended to “make Republicans look bad!!!”
But the Times, citing two officials with knowledge of the matter, reported Monday night that Trump had received a written briefing in February about intelligence regarding the alleged bounties. That same evening, the Associated Press reported that the White House was aware of the matter in early 2019, and that former national security advisor John Bolton told colleagues that he briefed Trump on the intelligence in March of last year.
Trump administration officials such as national security advisor Robert O’Brien say Trump was not briefed because the allegations had not been verified by the intelligence community. Democrats have slammed that response.
“President Truman said, ‘The buck stops here.’ President Trump says, ‘I never saw the buck,'” Hoyer said at the Tuesday morning presser.
Schiff also said, without providing details, that the issue of the president’s daily intelligence briefing was discussed at the White House. An official cited by the Times on Monday had said the matter appeared in the president’s daily brief on Feb. 27.
“I don’t want to comment on this particular case, but I will just say it’s not a justification to say that the president should have read whatever materials he has. If he doesn’t read, he doesn’t read,” Schiff said. “They should know that by now.”
Hoyer added: “Our focus was, what did the president know and when did he know it?”