WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump on Tuesday came under growing pressure to publicly respond to allegations that Russia offered bounties for killing American troops in Afghanistan, with Democrats demanding answers and accusing Trump of bowing to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the risk of U.S. soldiers' lives.
House Democrats returning from a briefing at the White House said they learned nothing new about American intelligence assessments that suggested Russia was making overtures to militants as the U.S. and the Taliban held talks on ending the conflict in Afghanistan. Senate Republicans who attended a separate briefing largely defended the president, arguing along with the White House that the intelligence was unverified.
The intelligence assessments were first reported by The New York Times, then confirmed to The Associated Press and The Washington Post by American intelligence officials and others with knowledge of the matter.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Tuesday that Trump had been briefed on the intelligence, a day after saying he hadn't because it had not been verified. McEnany added that there were still reservations among intelligence officials on the veracity of the allegations.
"Make no mistake: This president will always protect American troops," she said.
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and a small group of other House Democrats met with White House officials, according to people familiar with the briefing. The Democrats were said to have questioned why Trump wouldn't have been briefed sooner and pushed for White House officials to have the president make a strong statement about the matter.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who attended Tuesday's briefing, said it was "inexplicable" why Trump won't say publicly that he is working to get to the bottom of the issue and why he won't call out Putin. Schiff said Trump's defense that he hadn't been briefed was inexcusable.
"Many of us do not understand his affinity for that autocratic ruler who means our nation ill," Schiff said.
Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., a former Navy helicopter pilot and Russia policy officer, said White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows briefed the group. She said the Democrats told the White House officials that the president should make a statement.
"These are very concerning allegations, and if they're true, Russia is going to face repercussions," Sherrill said. "We really pushed that strongly in the meeting."
She wouldn't say how the White House officials reacted or whether they told the Democrats that Trump had, in fact, been briefed.
Trump and his aides set a high bar for briefing a president, since it is rare for intelligence to be confirmed without a shadow of doubt before it is presented to senior government decision-makers.
Some House Republicans who were briefed by the White House on Monday also said they left with questions.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas., the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said the panel would "leave no stone unturned" in seeking further information. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., insisted there would be "ramifications" for any targeting of Americans.
"America's adversaries should know, they should have no doubt, that any targeting of U.S. forces by Russia, by anyone else, should face a very swift and deadly response," Cheney told reporters.
But Senate Republicans questioned the media reports. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he didn't think Trump should be "subjected to every rumor."
"Conclusions, apparently, were not reached," McConnell said.
The White House was working to schedule a briefing today with McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and the top Republicans and Democrats on the two intelligence committees, according to a person familiar with the talks. The person declined to be identified because the "Gang of Eight" briefing will be classified. That group receives the most sensitive information in regular meetings with administration officials.
A separate group of Republican senators briefed Tuesday in the White House Situation Room appeared mostly satisfied with the answers they received. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said he was "convinced" that Trump hadn't known about the intelligence. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said Trump "can't be made aware of every piece of unverified intelligence."
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., interim chairman of Senate Intelligence Committee, said he believed the U.S. was prepared "to do everything possible to protect our men or women stationed abroad, from a variety of threats."
But some Republican senators did express frustration.
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., a member of the intelligence panel, said Monday evening that Congress should focus on finding out who knew what, and when, "and did the commander in chief know? And if not, how the hell not?"
U.S. officials intercepted electronic data showing large financial transfers from a bank account controlled by Russia's military intelligence agency to a Taliban-linked account, which was among the evidence that supported their conclusion that Russia covertly offered bounties for killing U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan, according to three officials familiar with the intelligence.
Though the United States has accused Russia of providing general support to the Taliban before, analysts concluded from other intelligence that the transfers were most likely part of a bounty program that detainees described during interrogations. Investigators also identified by name numerous Afghans in a network linked to the suspected Russian operation, the officials said.
The intercepts bolstered the findings gleaned from the interrogations, helping ease an earlier disagreement among intelligence analysts and agencies over the reliability of the detainees, officials said.
The disclosures stand in contrast to the White House officials' claims that the intelligence was too uncertain to brief the president. In fact, the information was provided to him in his daily written brief in late February, two officials have said.
Afghan officials this week described a sequence of events that dovetails with the account of the intelligence. They said that several businessmen were arrested in Afghanistan over the past six months and are suspected of being part of a ring of middlemen who operated between the Russian intelligence agency, known as the GRU, and Taliban-linked militants.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called and spoken with the Taliban's chief negotiator, a spokesman for the insurgents said Tuesday.
However, it was not known whether there was any mention during the call of allegations that some Taliban militants received money to kill U.S. and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan.
Pompeo and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar held a videoconference late Monday in which Pompeo pressed the insurgents to reduce violence in Afghanistan and discussed ways of moving forward on a peace deal signed between the U.S. and the Taliban in February, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen tweeted.
The Taliban have denied the allegations that they were paid by Russia to kill Americans in Afghanistan. The Associated Press has reported that Russia began paying the bounties in early 2019, even as U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was trying to finalize the deal with the insurgent group to end Washington's longest war and withdraw U.S. soldiers.
Information for this article was contributed by Mary Clare Jalonick, Zeke Miller, James LaPorta, Kathy Gannon, Lisa Mascaro, Alan Fram and Deb Riechmann of The Associated Press; by Charlie Savage, Mujib Mashal, Rukmini Callimachi, Eric Schmitt and Adam Goldman of The New York Times; and by Karoun Demirjian of The Washington Post.