Leading Democratic lawmakers are slamming the White House, one of them accusing the president and his aides of trying to trick the American public into believing intelligence on an alleged Russian plot to pay for attacks on U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan is not serious.
The criticism from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi followed a classified briefing Thursday by the directors of the CIA and the National Security Agency and the recently confirmed director of national intelligence.
While Pelosi refused to comment on the intelligence itself, she said efforts by President Donald Trump and his staff to minimize the seriousness of the information were a disservice to U.S. forces in the region.
“You got the con. The White House put on a con that if you don’t have 100% consensus on intelligence, it shouldn’t rise to a certain level,” she told reporters.
“Don’t buy into that, and neither does the intelligence community,” Pelosi added. “They have enough intelligence to know where we have to go next with it.”
Pointing to CIA briefer
Top White House officials, including national security adviser Robert O’Brien, have repeatedly defended the decision not to brief the president on intelligence indicating Russian intelligence was paying bounties to Taliban-aligned militants for deadly attacks on U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan.
O’Brien on Wednesday placed responsibility for that decision on Trump’s CIA briefer, telling reporters, “She made that decision because she didn't have confidence in the intelligence that came out."
Trump on Wednesday took to Twitter to dismiss the allegations as a hoax meant to harm his political fortunes, a charge he repeated during an interview with Fox Business News.
"We never heard about it because intelligence never found it to be of that level,” the president said.
"The intelligence people, many of them didn't believe it happened at all," he added. “I think it’s a hoax based on the newspapers and the Democrats.”
But Pelosi said not only was it clear to her that the president should have been briefed, but that intelligence officials were negligent for failing to keep Congress in the loop.
“It was of a consequential level that the intelligence community should have brought it to us,” Pelosi said.
'Not close to tough enough'
Pelosi and fellow Democrat Chuck Schumer, the House minority leader, also called on Trump to take a tougher line on Russia and its leader, President Vladimir Putin.
"I believe the president is not close to tough enough on Vladimir Putin," Schumer told reporters after leaving the briefing earlier.
They also raised concerns about what they described as Trump’s soft approach to Russia despite evidence of a threat to U.S. troops; his request for the removal of proposed sanctions on Russia’s intelligence and defense sectors; and his suggestion that Russia should be invited to rejoin the G-7, a group of the world’s top industrialized nations.
Despite the assertions by the Trump administration and the Pentagon that the intelligence on the alleged Russian bounty plot remained uncorroborated, officials said the threat was not taken lightly.
Officials from the White House and the CIA said the information was shared with U.S. intelligence agencies, the military and U.S. allies in Afghanistan, and that precautions were put in place.
White House officials also said there was no evidence any U.S. troops were harmed.
"We always act in the best interest of our troops," press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters late Wednesday.
“The Defense Department has said they do not know of any Americans that have been killed in relation to this unverified intelligence that's currently being assessed," she added.
U.S. defense and intelligence officials have long been concerned about Russian interference in Afghanistan, complaining repeatedly that Moscow has been providing the Taliban with weapons and training.
A new Pentagon report released Wednesday, while making no mention of the alleged bounties, warned that Russian involvement was growing.
“Russia has politically supported the Taliban to cultivate influence with the group, limit the Western military presence, and encourage counter-ISIS [Islamic State terror group] operations, although Russia publicly denies their involvement,” the report said.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday tried to downplay concerns.
“The fact that the Russians are engaged in Afghanistan in a way that’s adverse to the United States is nothing new,” he said. “The Russians have been selling small arms that have put Americans at risk there for 10 years. We have objected to it.”
“When we see credible information that suggests that the Russians are putting American lives at risk, we’re responding in a way that is serious,” he added.
VOA's Katherine Gypson and Steve Herman contributed to this report.