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Trump, Officials Defend Russia Response07/02 06:16

   Criticized for inaction, President Donald Trump and top officials stepped up 
their defense of the administration's response to intelligence assessments that 
Russia offered bounties for killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Trump's 
national security adviser said he had prepared a list of retaliatory options if 
the intelligence proved true.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- Criticized for inaction, President Donald Trump and top 
officials stepped up their defense of the administration's response to 
intelligence assessments that Russia offered bounties for killing U.S. troops 
in Afghanistan. Trump's national security adviser said he had prepared a list 
of retaliatory options if the intelligence proved true.

   Trump, meanwhile, called the assessments a "hoax" and insisted anew he 
hadn't been briefed on them because the intelligence didn't rise to his level. 
However, national security adviser Robert O'Brien said the CIA and the Pentagon 
pursued the leads and briefed international allies.

   "We had options ready to go," O'Brien said Wednesday on Fox News Channel. 
"It may be impossible to get to the bottom of it."

   At a State Department news conference, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said 
the situation was handled "incredibly well" to ensure the safety of U.S. troops.

   "We took this seriously, we handled it appropriately," Pompeo said, without 
giving additional details. He said the administration receives intelligence 
about threats to Americans "every single day" and each is addressed.

   Pompeo added that Russian activity in Afghanistan is nothing new and that 
Russia is just one of many nations acting there. He said that Congress has had 
similar information in the past and that he often receives threat assessments 
that don't rise to the level of a presidential briefing.

   Trump is coming under increasing pressure from lawmakers of both parties to 
provide more answers about the intelligence and the U.S. response or lack of 
one. Democrats who were briefed at the White House on Tuesday suggested he was 
bowing to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the risk of U.S. soldiers' lives.

   The Republican president has repeatedly said he wasn't briefed on the 
assessments that Russia offered bounties because there wasn't corroborating 
evidence. Those assessments were first reported by The New York Times, then 
confirmed to The Associated Press by American intelligence officials and others 
with knowledge of the matter.

   White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany pointed to an individual who 
she said made the decision not to brief Trump, identifying the person as a 
female CIA officer with more than 30 years of experience. O'Brien said the 
person was a "career CIA briefer."

   "The national security adviser agreed with that decision," McEnany said. "It 
was the right decision to make, and at this moment as I speak to you it is 
still unverified."

   Trump remained defensive about the intelligence in early morning tweets, 
dismissing stories about it as "Fake News" made up to "damage me and the 
Republican Party."

   Later in the day, Trump said in a television interview that it was a hoax 
and "we never heard about it" because intelligence officials didn't think it 
rose to that level.

   "The intelligence people, many of them didn't believe it happened at all," 
Trump said on Fox Business.

   O'Brien said the intelligence wasn't brought to Trump's attention initially 
because it was unverified and there was no consensus among the intelligence 
community. But it's rare for intelligence to be confirmed without a shadow of 
doubt before it is presented to senior government decision-makers.

   The national security adviser echoed the recent White House talking point 
faulting not Russia but government leakers and the media for making the matter 
public.

   Senate Republicans appeared split on the matter, with several defending the 
president and saying that the Russian meddling wasn't new.

   Others expressed strong concern.

   Sen. Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania called for administration officials to 
address the entire Senate and answer questions. He said he had reviewed 
classified documents regarding the potential bounties "upon which recent news 
reports are based" and said the information raises many questions.

   "If it is concluded that Russia offered bounties to murder American 
soldiers, a firm American response is required in short order," Toomey said.

   Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley had similar words on the Senate floor, saying that 
if the reports are true, "it demands a strong response, and I don't mean a 
diplomatic response."

   House Democrats who were briefed at the White House on Tuesday questioned 
why Trump wouldn't have been briefed sooner and pushed White House officials to 
have the president make a strong statement. They said the administration should 
brief all members of Congress.

   House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, one of the Democrats who 
attended the briefing, said it was "inexplicable" that Trump won't say publicly 
that he is working to get to the bottom of the issue and won't call out Putin. 
He 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.

   Senate Republicans who received their own briefing largely agreed with the 
White House that the intelligence was unverified. Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, 
chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said 
Trump "can't be made aware of every piece of unverified intelligence."

   Similarly, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he didn't think Trump should 
be "subjected to every rumor."

   Intelligence officials, including CIA Director Gina Haspel and Director of 
National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, will brief the so-called Gang of 8 --- 
McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the top Republicans and Democrats on 
the two intelligence committees --- in a classified meeting on Capitol Hill 
Thursday morning.

   While Russian meddling in Afghanistan isn't new, officials said Russian 
operatives had become more aggressive in their desire to contract with the 
Taliban and members of the Haqqani Network, a militant group aligned with the 
Taliban in Afghanistan and designated a foreign terrorist organization in 2012.

   The intelligence community has been investigating an April 2019 attack on an 
American convoy that killed three U.S. Marines when a car rigged with 
explosives detonated near their armored vehicles as they traveled back to 
Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military installation in Afghanistan, 
officials told the AP.

   Three other U.S. service members were wounded in the attack, along with an 
Afghan contractor. The Taliban claimed responsibility. The officials the AP 
spoke to also said they were looking closely at insider attacks from 2019 to 
determine if they were linked to Russian bounties.

   Intelligence officials told the AP that the White House first became aware 
of alleged Russian bounties in early 2019 --- a year earlier than had been 
previously reported. The assessments were included in one of Trump's written 
daily briefings at the time, and then-national security adviser John Bolton had 
told colleagues he had briefed Trump on the matter.

 
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