First President Donald Trump denied knowing about it. Then he called it a possible “hoax.” Next, the White House attacked the news media. And now an unnamed intelligence official is to blame.
The one thing Trump and his top officials have not done is to address the substance of intelligence reports that Russia paid bounties to Taliban-affiliated fighters to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan or what they might do in response.
On Wednesday, Trump repeated his claim that he was “never briefed” about the intelligence, which his aides called unverified but which many U.S. intelligence officials deemed credible. Officials say it appeared in the president’s daily written intelligence briefing in late February.
His national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, said on Fox News that Trump’s CIA briefer, the person who delivers an in-person briefing to him every few days, had not brought it to his attention.
But it would be unusual, if not unprecedented, for intelligence with grave implications to be withheld from the president on the grounds that it lacked definitive consensus.
O’Brien did not name the CIA briefer but said she was “an outstanding officer.” He added, “I certainly support her decision.”
The person who usually handles that job is Beth Sanner, a CIA analyst with three decades of experience. Sanner is said to have a good relationship with Trump, but the White House has cited her briefings before when deflecting responsibility for a crisis.
Former officials say that unlike his predecessors, Trump often does not read the President’s Daily Brief, the summary prepared for him by the intelligence agencies. And he registers only information relayed to him orally, a fact that administration officials acknowledged in a briefing for lawmakers this week.
In his interview Wednesday, O’Brien repeated White House assertions that intelligence officials lacked “consensus” about the bounties, which was based on intelligence that included intercepted electronic data showing large financial transfers from Russia’s military intelligence agency to a Taliban-linked account.
O’Brien was among several senior Trump officials at a White House briefing on Tuesday for House Democrats, which lawmakers complained was hampered by the absence of any intelligence professionals who could walk them through the nuances of the competing strands of intelligence.
“They just wanted to make sure that we knew that the president didn’t know anything,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who attended the meeting.