The White House briefed several House Republicans on intelligence that Russia offered bounties to Afghan militants who targeted U.S. troops for assassination, according to Trump administration officials and congressional sources.
Seven House Republicans attended the briefing, including Reps. Mac Thornberry and Michael McCaul, ranking members on the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs panels, respectively. A mix of other Republicans from those committees — Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) and Jim Banks (R-Ind.) — also attended. Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), who doesn’t sit on either panel but leads the House Freedom Caucus, was also present.
Noticeably absent from the briefing, which are traditionally bipartisan affairs, were any Democrats, despite controlling both House panels. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows called House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) Sunday to try to schedule a briefing for Democrats but its unclear why that has yet to happen or if it will.
The White House’s decision comes despite demands from Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer for briefings for all members of Congress, pointing to those news reports and conflicting statements by President Donald Trump on the matter.
“It’s hard to say the Trump Administration isn’t politicizing the military when only members of their party get invited to the briefing,” tweeted Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.).
It’s unclear if any lawmakers had previously been briefed on intelligence related to the Russian bounties. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) declined to comment on the recent reports but said, “the targeting of our troops by foreign adversaries via proxies is a well established threat.”
The New York Times reported over the weekend on the intelligence assessment, which indicated that senior White House and intelligence officials knew about the bounty allegations since at least March but took no action. The Times reported that Trump was briefed on the matter and that it was included in his Presidential Daily Brief, but Trump denied ever learning of the intelligence and late Sunday said his leaders in the intelligence community told him it wasn’t credible.
“The questions that arise are: was the President briefed, and if not, why not, and why was Congress not briefed. Congress and the country need answers now,” Pelosi wrote in her letter to Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and CIA Director Gina Haspel. “I therefore request an interagency brief for all House Members immediately. Congress needs to know what the intelligence community knows about this significant threat to American troops and our allies and what options are available to hold Russia accountable.”
Since the news reports emerged, Democrats and some Republicans have been demanding details from the administration. Early Monday, congressional aides indicated no briefing had been set up for the House intelligence, armed services or foreign affairs committee. It’s unclear if the Gang of Eight — the leaders of the House and Senate, as well as the intelligence committee — will be briefed, but as of Monday morning there was no meeting scheduled, per a congressional source.
Democrats have long accused Trump of being soft on Russia and its president Vladimir Putin, despite the country’s well-documented attempts to interfere in U.S. elections, its aggression in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, and its support of Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s brutal civil war. Those allegations were inflamed anew earlier this month with the publication of a memoir by former Trump national security adviser John Bolton, who accused the president of cozying up to autocrats, including Putin, for political gain.
The new allegations — which the New York Times and Washington Post reported may have led to the deaths of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan — have once again brought Trump’s relationship with Russia under scrutiny.
Senior House Democrats were furious with the reports, which first surfaced Saturday. Pelosi told ABC ‘s ‘This Week” on Sunday: “This is as bad as it gets.”
“If reports are true that Russia offered a bounty on U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Trump wasn’t briefed, that’s a problem,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) tweeted Sunday. “What will it take to get Trump to abandon the fiction that Putin is our friend?”
Some Republicans, too, have vowed to investigate the reports. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close confidant of Trump who spent part of the weekend golfing with the president, called it “imperative” that Congress learn the details.
“I expect the Trump Administration to take such allegations seriously and inform Congress immediately as to the reliability of these news reports,” Graham tweeted.
Trump retweeted Graham’s comment late Sunday to downplay the new reports.
“Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me or @VP,” Trump said. “Possibly another fabricated Russia Hoax, maybe by the Fake News @nytimesbooks, wanting to make Republicans look bad!!!”
Democrats, however, hammered the president over the bounties.
“It’s sickening that American soldiers have been killed as a result of Russian bounties on their heads, and the Commander in Chief didn’t do a thing to stop it,” said Max Rose (D-N.Y.), a combat veteran who served in Afghanistan.
Sarah Ferris contributed to this story.