Bolton personally briefed Trump on Russian bounties one year earlier than previously known: report

The intelligence was also reportedly included in two of the President's Daily Briefs

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published June 30, 2020 10:54AM (EDT)

National Security Advisor John Bolton (R) listens to U.S. President Donald Trump talk to reporters during a meeting of his cabinet in the Cabinet Room at the White House (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
National Security Advisor John Bolton (R) listens to U.S. President Donald Trump talk to reporters during a meeting of his cabinet in the Cabinet Room at the White House (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Former national security adviser John Bolton told colleagues that he personally briefed President Donald Trump about intelligence that Russia offered Afghan militants bounties to kill American troops, U.S. officials told the Associated Press.

Bolton briefed Trump on the matter in March of 2019, according to the report, a year earlier than previously reported by The New York Times. The information was also included in at least one presidential Daily Brief, according to the AP, CNN and The Times. The AP earlier reported that it was also included in a second presidential Daily Brief earlier this year and that current national security adviser Robert O'Brien discussed the matter with Trump.

"Trump is not known to fully or regularly read the President's Daily Brief, something that is well-known within the White House," CNN reported. "He is instead orally briefed two or three times a week by his intelligence officials. The White House maintains he was not briefed about this in the oral session."

Career government officials drafted potential options for the White House to respond to the aggression, though the administration has yet to authorize any action, officials told the AP.

The reports, along with numerous others, contradict Trump's claims that he was not briefed on the matter after The Times first broke the story last week. Trump claimed that he was not briefed, because the information was not "credible." But numerous intelligence agencies reportedly confirmed the information. The intelligence community is also investigating whether the killing of three Marines in Afghanistan was linked to the bounties. The information was shared with congressional leaders and the British government.

The White House has claimed that Trump was not briefed and still has not been briefed. Bolton did not respond to questions from the AP, though he criticized Trump in multiple TV interviews after the story broke. The information, which is classified, was not included in his recent book.

"It is pretty remarkable the president's going out of his way to say he hasn't heard anything about it," Bolton said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." "One asks, 'Why would he do something like that?' He can disown everything if no one ever told him about it."

O'Brien, who denies discussing the issue with the president, told the AP that the intelligence on the bounties has "not been verified," and the administration has "been preparing should the situation warrant action."

But the report that the White House was aware of the bounties a year earlier than previously reported raises questions about why the U.S. did not respond.

Officials told the AP that they did not consider the intelligence assessments in 2019 to be "particularly urgent." Officials with knowledge of the discussions with Trump said Bolton's briefing contained no "actionable intelligence," even though it was the sole purpose of their meeting.

According to the AP's previous reporting, intelligence officials became suspicious that Russia had offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants after Navy SEAL Team Six raided an outpost and discovered about $500,000 in cash.

The raid took place after three Marines were killed in an April 2019 car attack en route to Bagram Airfield. Intelligence officials learned about the bounties after interrogating captured Taliban militants.

One of the Marines killed in the attack was 25-year-old Cpl. Robert Hendriks. Hendricks' father, Erik, told the AP that the issue should have been immediately addressed even if it was just a rumor.

"If this was kind of swept under the carpet as to not make it a bigger issue with Russia and one ounce of blood was spilled when they knew this, I lost all respect for this administration and everything," he said.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, has responded to the reports with denials and threats to prosecute those who leaked the classified information to the press.

Both Russia and the Taliban have denied that bounties were offered to target American or western troops.

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, defended the administration, arguing that at least one intelligence agency disagreed with the others' assessments.

"While there was a stream of reporting on this alleged bounty issue — intelligence from one agency — there was another agency with a very strong dissenting view on this intelligence," he told CNN. "When that happens, typically, the national security adviser goes back through the NSC and tries to vet this to get to a point where it can be actionable. They don't want to throw intelligence in front of the president when there's basically a dissent within the community itself."

But McCaul contradicted Trump and the White House's denial, acknowledging after attending a private briefing that the information "may have been" in the president's Daily Brief.

Other Republicans criticized the administration for its lack of response.

"Anything with any hint of credibility that would endanger our service members, much less put a bounty on their lives, to me should have been briefed immediately to the commander in chief and a plan to deal with that situation," Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said.

"I want to understand how it's conceivably possible that the president didn't know. How does that possibly happen?" Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb, who sits on the Intelligence Committee, 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 [Russian military intelligence] agents in body bags."

Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., wrote a letter to Trump on Monday urging him to hit back at Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"Depending on where the facts lead, there should be no invitation for the Russian Federation to rejoin the G-7, and you should impose sanctions directly on both President Putin and Foreign Minister [Sergey] Lavrov," he wrote, adding that he was "alarmed" that Trump would not be briefed. "I stand ready to hold any members of your administration accountable for their gross negligence in performing such a grave responsibility."

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., echoed that criticism in an interview with CNN.

"It seems clear that the intelligence is real. The question is whether the president was briefed," she said. "If he was not briefed, why would he not be briefed? Were they afraid to approach him on the subject of Russia?"

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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Aggregate Donald Trump John Bolton Nancy Pelosi Politics Republicans Russia Taliban Vladimir Putin