The White House on Tuesday blamed “rogue intelligence officers” for leaking classified information about alleged Russian bounty payments to Taliban forces to kill US troops in Afghanistan just to damage Donald Trump.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany was asked during a briefing if officials there believe career intelligence community officers are going after the president, she replied that notion “very possible could be.”
If true – she did not provide evidence of a leak plot – Ms McEnany said that would be “absolutely despicable.”
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The fourth full day of the bounty scandal left the White House again faces hard questions about reported US intelligence reports earlier this year that concluded Russia had placed bounties on the heads of American and coalition military forces in Afghanistan. If Taliban and Taliban-linked militias killed any, Russia would provide payouts, US officials have told multiple US media outlets. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that US officials found electronic transfers of cash from Russia to Taliban-linked accounts.
The White House has not denied the intel reports exist or the payments happened, just that they were not 100 per cent verified, as Ms McEnany did again on Tuesday. Mr Trump’s top aides continue to claim he was never briefed on the intelligence because it was not 100 per cent verified. But US officials, speaking anonymously to be candid, have told media outlets the reports were summarised in his daily intel briefing back in late February.
Ms McEnany would not confirm or deny the information was in his written intelligence briefing book on 27 February.
Yet, she sent mixed signals about what Mr Trump knows now about the alleged plot.
“The president was never briefed on this,” she said, because it was “not verified” and because “there is no consensus [within] the intelligence community.”
Mere seconds later, however, she said this: “The president has been briefed about what’s in the public domain.” That suggests a president who is described as obsessed with media reports, despite his use of the “fake news” term, he still has not been briefed on what some in the US intelligence community felt was a scheme by a US adversary to have American troops killed.
Ms McEnany contended intelligence is only “briefed to the president is when there’s a strategic decision to be made.”
“In this case,” she said, “it was not briefed to the president.”
Despite his claims of not having ever been briefed on the matter, the president used a weekend tweet to suggest the leak of the reports was a “hoax” intended to make he and other Republicans “look bad.”
A group of Democrats from national security committees were briefed on the bounty reports on Tuesday morning at the White House. They left disappointed, saying there were no intelligence officials present, and they were merely given a repeat of the White House’s claims.
Among them was House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, the Democrats’ lead impeachment manager earlier this year, who said he is concerned Trump administration officials are reluctant to share national security information with MR Trump that might upset him.
“There may be a reluctance to brief the president on things he does not want to hear, and that may be more true with respect to Putin and Putin’s Russia than with respect to any other subject matter,” the California Democrat told reporters, referring to the Russian president.
Hours later, however, Ms McEnany said media reports about highly classified matters “damages our ability as a nation to gather intelligence.”