A top Republican lawmaker said Monday that The New York Times has "blood" on its hands, after the paper reported that Russia secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing American troops in Afghanistan.
Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., who attended a meeting with top White House and intelligence officials earlier in the day, charged in a series of tweets that the Times had "used unconfirmed intel in an ONGOING investigation into targeted killing of American soldiers in order to smear the President."
The Times' "hit piece," Banks said, had incorrectly suggested that Trump was personally briefed on the intelligence, contrary to claims from senior White House and intelligence officials.
"Sad, but many in the media & Congress rushed to judgement before learning the whole story," Banks wrote. "We should treat anonymously sourced @nytimes stories about Russia w/ skepticism." Several previous stories in the Times concerning Russia have been disputed; perhaps most famously, in 2017, former FBI Director James Comey slammed a Times story about alleged Trump team contacts with Russians as "not true."
The intelligence community has been investigating an April 2019 attack on an American convoy that killed three U.S. Marines after 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 Associated Press.
Three other U.S. service members were wounded in the attack, along with an Afghan contractor. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on Twitter. The officials the AP spoke to also said they were looking closely at insider attacks — sometimes called “green-on-blue” incidents — from 2019 to determine if they are also linked to Russian bounties. One official said the administration discussed several potential responses, but the White House has yet to authorize any step.
"Having served in Afghanistan during the time the alleged bounties were placed, no one is angrier about this than me," Banks wrote. "Now it’s impossible to finish the investigation. All b/c the @nytimes will do anything to damage @realdonaldtrump , even if it means compromising nat'l security."
The White House said Monday that Trump wasn't briefed on U.S. intelligence assessments concerning the bounties because the information had not been verified.
Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters Monday that Trump — even now — had not been briefed on the allegations because the intelligence “would not be elevated to the president until it was verified."
The result was an odd situation in which eight Republican lawmakers attended a briefing at the White House on Monday about explosive allegations that the president himself was said to have not been fully read in on.
A White House official said Democrats also were invited to a White House briefing. It was scheduled to take place Tuesday morning, according to two Democratic aides.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the vice chair of the Senate intelligence committee, told Fox News that the administration was simply trying to appease Russia. His rhetoric echoed similar statements by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, who has repeatedly alleged that "all roads lead to Putin."
“I'm not going to talk about any specific intelligence," Warner said. "But this constant effort in this administration to kowtow to Putin is not in America's best interest."
Even some left-of-center commentators, meanwhile, were skeptical, given the numerous false or misleading reports over the past three years pushing unsubstantiated claims of a conspiracy between the Trump team and Russia.
"We are now in year FIVE of unhinged Trump-Russia conspiracy theories, chauvinism, and innuendo," wrote Aaron Mate. "If you're a journalist and not willing to apply aggressive skepticism to its latest iteration, you shouldn't be on this beat."
McEnany, for her part, repeatedly stressed that the allegations had not been confirmed.
“There is no consensus within the intelligence community on these allegations and in effect there are dissenting opinions from some in the intelligence community with regards to the veracity of what’s being reported and the veracity of the underlying allegations continue to be evaluated," she said.
The intelligence assessments came amid Trump’s push to withdraw the U.S. from Afghanistan. They suggested Russia was making overtures to militants as the U.S. and the Taliban held talks to end the long-running war.
Republican Sen. John Cornyn told reporters Monday, “I don’t think it’s should be a surprise to anybody that the Taliban’s been trying to kill Americans and that the Russians have been encouraging that, if not providing means to make that happen.”
While Russian meddling in Afghanistan isn’t new, officials said Russian operatives became 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.
Rep. Michael McCaul, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who were in the briefing Monday led by Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien, said in a statement that lawmakers were told “there is an ongoing review to determine the accuracy of these reports.”
“If the intelligence review process verifies the reports, we strongly encourage the Administration to take swift and serious action to hold the Putin regime accountable,” they said.
The intelligence officials told the AP that Trump was briefed on the bounty matter earlier this year; Trump denied that, tweeting Sunday that neither he nor Vice President Mike Pence had been briefed.
Trump tweeted Sunday night he was just told intelligence officials didn’t report the information to him because they didn’t find it credible.
The intelligence officials and others with knowledge of the matter insisted on anonymity to discuss the highly sensitive matter.
The White House National Security Council wouldn't confirm the assessments but said the U.S. receives thousands of intelligence reports daily that are subject to strict scrutiny.
Trump’s Democratic general election rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, used an online fundraiser Monday to hammer the president for a “betrayal” of American troops in favor of “an embarrassing campaign of deferring and debasing himself before Putin.”
“I’m disgusted,” Biden told donors, as he recalled his late son Beau’s military service. Families of service members, Biden said, “should never, ever have to worry they’ll face a threat like this: the commander-in-chief turning a blind eye.”
Asked about the reports on the alleged bounties, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday, “These claims are lies.”
“If in the U.S. the special services are continuing to report to the president, I suggest that one be guided by the relevant statement of President Trump, who has already given his assessment of these publications,” he told reporters during a conference call.
John Bolton, an ex-national security adviser who was forced out by Trump last September and has written a tell-all book about his White House tenure, said Sunday it's "pretty remarkable the president’s going out of his way to say he hasn’t heard anything about it. One asks, why would he do something like that?”
Fox News' Jason Donner and Chad Pergram, as well as The Associated Press, contributed to this report.