Secretary of State Mike Pompeo got testy with reporters who pressed him for answers on allegations that Russia offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for murdered American and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan.
The question of whether President Donald Trump knew about the bounties — and if not, why he didn’t know — has roiled the White House in recent days. Many, especially in the Democratic party, have speculated that the President prioritized his coziness with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the safety of American troops.
“So let’s back up. Let’s back up,” Pompeo said Wednesday when a reporter asked about his conversations with Russian officials after aides told him about the alleged bounties. “A lot of what you said suggests knowledge that I don’t think you actually have. I don’t want to comment on the intelligence.”
He said that his department had responded in “precisely the correct way” and that U.S. and coalition forces were “postured appropriately.”
Pompeo bristled again when another reporter, prefacing the question by acknowledging that Pompeo didn’t want to delve into underlying intelligence, asked why Trump wasn’t briefed on the bounty allegations.
“I’m not going to further jeopardize intelligence capabilities,” he responded. “I’m not going to put at risk the young men and women of Afghanistan in the same way that some news organizations have done. I just simply won’t engage in that, Kylie. It’s inappropriate, it is dangerous, and you ought not be part of that.”
He added that the President is briefed when a threat is considered “sufficiently serious.”
He snapped again towards the end of his briefing, when a reporter asked if the alleged bounties represent a major escalation from Russia.
“I’m just – I’m just – you all are going places that I’m not going to go because we have work that is important to keep our soldiers safe and I’m not going to allow you to lay down questions with facts that are asserted and say oh, he didn’t refute what I said in my question, therefore it must be true,” he said. “I’m not going to go down that path with you.”
The Trump administration has been in damage control mode since the New York Times broke the story of Russia’s alleged bounties last week. Officials told the Times that the intelligence had been included in Trump’s daily briefing in late February.
The Trump administration has insisted that the intelligence on the bounties was unverified and its credibility in doubt as an explanation for why it didn’t reach Trump’s ears. However, per the Times, it was significant enough to have been shared with British intelligence last week.
Members of Congress have since demanded briefings on the situation. The White House tried to control the story by first offering a briefing to Trump-friendly House Republicans.
Some were not mollified.
“After today’s briefing with senior White House officials, we remain concerned about Russian activity in Afghanistan, including reports that they have targeted U.S. forces,” said Reps. Liz Cheney (R-WY) and Mac Thornberry (R-TX) in a joint statement.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) took an even stronger tone in reaction to the initial reports. He and the rest of the Senate Intelligence Committee were briefed on Wednesday afternoon.
“I want to understand how it’s conceivably possible that the president didn’t know. How does that possibly happen?” he said. “Number two, what is their plan to make sure that our enemies know that if you target American servicemen and women, the consequences are going to be draconian? And right now, I want to hear their plan for Taliban and GRU agents in body bags.”
Many Republicans, though, are trying to quash the scandal by insisting that Trump can’t be expected to hear and heed unverified information.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said that Trump shouldn’t be “subjected to every rumor.” He and the rest of the Gang of Eight are scheduled to be briefed on Thursday.
Trump himself was still dismissing the story as a “hoax” as of Wednesday morning.
“The Russia Bounty story is just another made up by Fake News tale that is told only to damage me and the Republican Party,” he said in a tweet. “The secret source probably does not even exist, just like the story itself. If the discredited New York Times has a source, reveal it. Just another HOAX!”
Democrats have been using the episode to hammer Trump for his consistently friendly attitude towards Putin and Russia.
Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, said that Trump’s betrayal of American troops is just the latest in “an embarrassing campaign of deferring and debasing himself before Putin.”