President Trump on Wednesday called allegations of Russia offering bounties to kill U.S. soldiers a “hoax,” even as his top national security adviser revealed that the administration prepared options for a response to Moscow if the reports were verified.
“The Russia Bounty story is just another made up by Fake News tale that is told only to damage me and the Republican Party,” Mr. Trump tweeted.
He called on The New York Times to disclose its sources for the story that Russian military intelligence agents offered cash to militants linked to the Taliban.
“Just another HOAX!” Mr. Trump tweeted.
But White House National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien said national security officials took the intelligence reports seriously enough to prepare options for the president, although they decided not to present Mr. Trump with unverified intelligence.
“If this eventually becomes something that’s proven, or something that we believe, we need to have options for the president to deal with the Russians,” Mr. O’Brien said on “Fox & Friends.” “If this information turned out to be true — and now we may never know — but if it turned out to be true, we had options ready to go, and the president was ready to take strong action, as he always is.”
The White House has refuted a Times report that Mr. Trump was briefed about the issue in March, saying he didn’t learn about it until it was reported publicly last week. Mr. O’Brien and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said the decision not to brief the president rested with a lone CIA career briefer.
“The intelligence community did not have a consensus and as a result the president’s career CIA briefer decided not to brief him because it was unverified evidence,” Mr. O’Brien said, adding that he “fully supports” the briefer’s decision.
Former Trump administration diplomat Brett McGurk called the White House’s explanation “absurd and alarming,” apparently citing media reports that the information was contained in a written intelligence report given to the president but not read aloud to him by the CIA briefer.
“So he wasn’t ‘briefed’ even though it was in the brief,” Mr. McGurk tweeted. “Meanwhile, the U.S. alerted its allies. Trump spoke with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin at least five times. Still, nobody told him? This suggests our country is as safe as Trump’s attention span during an oral briefing (notoriously short). On its face: he doesn’t read and nobody tells him what he needs to know even when making policy on the phone with hostile foreign counterparts.”
Mr. McGurk, who was a special envoy to counter the Islamic State and also served in the Bush and Obama administrations, said some disagreement in the intelligence community is “irrelevant” and “standard course for major items like this.”
“The WH now acknowledges it was serious enough to alert allies,” Mr. McGurk said. “Even presuming moderate confidence, any minimally competent president knows and acts accordingly. That we knew Putin may have a policy to target our troops while Trump is regularly on the phone and inviting Putin back to the G-7 — over objection of the same allies warned about the bounties — shows a total lack of care for our people and our country.”
Trump ally and adviser Rudolph W. Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor, said the person who leaked the intelligence should go to prison.
“Some kind of a felon in the federal government, some kind of deep-state criminal … committed a very serious crime,” the former New York City mayor told reporters at the White House. “That was actionable intelligence. I can’t think of a worse crime. He should be caught and should go to jail for 20 or 30 years.”
He said it was “a good choice” not to tell Mr. Trump about the intelligence unless it was verified.
Lawmakers in both parties are calling for oversight hearings on the issue.
At an administration briefing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Democrat Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts emerged from the closed-door meeting complaining that no officials could explain “what information was given to the president or when it was given to him.”
Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia told reporters, “We did not get any direct answers and nobody was high-enough level to give us a direct answer.”
The leaders of the House and Senate in both parties, the so-called “Gang of Eight,” will receive the highest-level briefing yet on Thursday on the subject. CIA director Gina Haspel, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, and National Security Agency Director Gen. Paul Nakasone are expected to deliver the briefing.