President Donald Trump on Wednesday dismissed the ongoing scandal surrounding allegations of bounties being placed on U.S. troops in Afghanistan as “a made up fake news media hoax” designed to hurt his reputation.
But Democratic lawmakers called the episode unnerving for troops serving overseas and for all Americans, saying they believe the president should have acted sooner on the issue.
In dispute are multiple news reports that Russian officials have offered Taliban units financial incentives to target and kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan in an effort to destabilize America military efforts there. The New York Times first reported the matter last week, noting that Trump and other top administration figures were briefed on the issue in March.
White House officials have denied that, saying that the evidence behind the allegations did not meet the standard to require a presidential level intelligence briefing. Russian officials have denied the charges.
In recent days, intelligence officials have expanded on those findings in separate briefings for congressional Democrats and Republicans.
While both groups have confirmed questions surrounding the accuracy of the allegations, Democratic leaders have said they are confident Trump was made aware of the information and should have reacted in some way.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany on Tuesday afternoon said that Trump is “prepared to act and will always act in protecting our American troops” if the intelligence turns out to be true.
But she blasted the New York Times and other outlets for publishing “leaked classified information” and said there is no consensus within the intelligence community about the charges.
Trump went further on social media Wednesday morning, saying that “The Russia Bounty story is just another made up by Fake News tale that is told only to damage me and the Republican Party. The secret source probably does not even exist, just like the story itself.”
Members of the House Democratic Caucus National Security Task Force, which includes several military veterans, held a press event after the president’s Twitter remarks to attack his response to the allegations, saying he appears to care more about the effect on his polling numbers than the lives of American troops.
“If this doesn’t count as treason, I don’t know what is,” said Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and a former Marine who served in Iraq.
Congressional leaders — including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., both of whom have criticized the president’s handling of the allegations — and scheduled to receive an update on the intelligence on Thursday.
Multiple Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Congress have called for a full congressional briefing on the issue, but White House officials thus far have not agreed to that.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.