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New revelations stir old questions about Trump and Russia

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said there was "no consensus" among the intelligence community regarding reports Russia offered bounties to Taliban fighters to kill US troops in Afghanistan. CNN's Kaitlan Collins has more.

Posted: Jun 30, 2020 7:20 AM
Updated: Jun 30, 2020 7:20 AM

President Donald Trump's White House can never, ever, get its story straight on Russia.

Reports that a Russian military intelligence agency put a bounty on the heads of US troops in Afghanistan launched the President's team into a new cycle of confusion, apparent half-truths and contradictions as a fresh storm raged over Trump's mysterious deference to Moscow and its strongman leader, President Vladimir Putin.

Conflicting messages from the President and his press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, only deepened the intrigue about what is really going on.

None of what they are saying clears up an episode that comes as new reporting for CNN from veteran Washington reporter Carl Bernstein lifts the lid on Trump's desperate flattery of Putin, his ignorance of basic world events, the way he was manipulated by smarter world leaders and his "near-sadistic" -- according to one source -- behavior toward female world leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Bernstein's story, and Trump's unfathomable relationship with Russia -- a nation with which he had past business relationships and which he denies interfered in the 2016 US election -- both boil down to the same foreboding question about Trump's presidency: Does he act in America's interests or his own?

Such uncertainty is underpinned by Trump's foreign policy -- whether it involves feuding with NATO or calling on the G7 to readmit Russia -- which often seems to reward Moscow's interests. It's also offering an opening to Democrats, who warn that the commander in chief is either incompetent or unfit for office, only four months from a general election in which Trump is trailing Democrat Joe Biden in recent polling.

Less broadly, Monday's confusing events left major questions unanswered. Specifically, whether the President had been briefed on such explosive intelligence about Russia and US troops in Afghanistan. If the President was not told about such a fundamental threat to US security and American troops overseas, why was the information not brought to his attention? Was it contained in his written intelligence briefs, which multiple reports say he disdains to read, or did he ignore it? And why has Trump not been more outspoken in vowing to keep American troops safe since the reports first started emerging three days ago?

More uncertainty surrounds what steps, if any, the US took to warn Russia off and to protect American troops -- even if it was unsure of the provenance of the information that Russia's GRU agency offered money to Islamic militants to find US targets.

The same Russia playbook

There's one constant in each new twist of the drama over Russia that has overshadowed every day of Trump's term in the Oval Office.

Each time there's a damaging story on the issue, he makes exactly the same move -- dumping on the US intelligence that lies behind it. It was a similar story when the President used a Helsinki summit with Putin to throw US intelligence agencies under the bus over their assessments that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election to help him win.

In a late-night tweet on Sunday, Trump insisted that "intel just reported to me they did not find this info credible, and therefore didn't report it to me."

McEnany, however, contradicted Trump's certainty.

"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.

McEnany's phrasing about a lack of consensus about the intelligence reports appeared to grant the information far more credence than Trump's declaration it was not credible but was another Russia "hoax."

Several intelligence sources publicly and privately disputed that there needed to be consensus in the covert world before bringing such information to the attention of the President.

David Priess, a former CIA officer who wrote a book about the President's Daily Brief, rejected McEnany's reasoning.

"This is exactly the kind of thing that the President's Daily Brief was created for, to make sure that the President had the most up-to-date analysis and assessment of what is almost always uncertain intelligence. You don't put things in the President's Daily Brief only when they are completely corroborated and verified," Priess told CNN.

Two former senior intelligence officials told CNN's Jamie Gangel that it was "inconceivable" in any previous White House that the president would not have been informed of such grave intelligence and that the commander in chief would be briefed with caveats included.

The idea that the intelligence was not sufficiently corroborated to take to Trump was further undermined by the fact that Washington appears to have discussed it with its foreign partners. Over the weekend, a European military intelligence official told CNN that the scheme by Russia's military intelligence agency had caused coalition casualties.

McEnany's careful wording in her briefing also left wide open the possibility that the warning was indeed included in written, classified material handed to Trump and that he missed or ignored it.

"He was not personally briefed on the matter. That is all I can share with you today, " McEnany said.

But a US official with direct knowledge of the latest information said the intelligence was indeed contained in Trump's daily briefings sometime in the spring.

The assessment, the source told CNN's Barbara Starr, was backed up by "several pieces of information" that supported the view that there was an effort by the GRU to to pay bounties to kill US soldiers, including from the interrogation of Taliban detainees and electronic eavesdropping. The source said there was some other information that did not corroborate this view but that nonetheless, "This was a big deal. When it's about US troops you go after it 100%, with everything you got."

Multiple reports, and former national security adviser John Bolton in his new book, have said that Trump rarely reads or cares about written material.

"Almost never, according to CNN's sources, would Trump read the briefing materials prepared for him by the CIA and NSC staff in advance of his calls with heads of state," Bernstein reported.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wondered aloud in an interview with CNN why Trump was not briefed on the grave threats to US troops.

"If he was not briefed, why would he not be briefed?" Pelosi told CNN's Jake Tapper.

"Were they afraid to approach him on the subject of Russia?" Pelosi said. "Were they concerned if they did tell him that he would tell Putin? So there's a lot that remains out there."

Trump 'should be briefed'

Suspicion over the motives of the White House is being exacerbated by the way it has handled the allegations. For one thing, Trump has not made a public on-camera statement vowing to do anything it takes to defend American troops -- a step a US President would normally be expected to take as a matter of course.

The White House did brief a small group of Republican House members on the matter Monday in an encounter that looked more like an effort to bolster its political defense against the allegations on the issue rather than to pull key national security decision makers on Capitol Hill into the loop.

"It's actually unfortunate the whole thing was leaked because it will actually serve to dry up that information," Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois told reporters. "In terms of whether the President should've been briefed, from everything I've seen, I think it's accurate to say it shouldn't have risen to his level at that point because there was conflicting intelligence."

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, who raised pointed questions about the latest Russia controversy, was also in the briefing and issued a statement along with Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, that appeared to give the intelligence far more credibility than the White House lends it.

"After today's briefing with senior White House officials, we remain concerned about Russian activity in Afghanistan, including reports that they have targeted US forces," the two lawmakers said.

Amid a rising political showdown, a number of senior House Democrats, including Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff of California, are expected to get a briefing on Tuesday.

"It is frequently the case that the President will be briefed -- should be briefed -- on matters where there is no absolute certainty about the intelligence on a given topic," Schiff said on CNN's "The Situation Room."

At the end of another day of Russia intrigue -- as corrosive to US interests as ever -- the same questions remained unanswered.

Why can't Trump ever talk straight to the American people about Russia?

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 482902

Reported Deaths: 9425
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison33063488
Hinds31021589
DeSoto30610358
Jackson23687348
Rankin21340370
Lee14909220
Madison14166271
Jones13404227
Forrest13160240
Lauderdale11601305
Lowndes10443176
Lamar10214130
Pearl River9098221
Lafayette8241137
Hancock7514112
Washington7102150
Oktibbeha6964124
Monroe6514164
Neshoba6475201
Warren6464164
Pontotoc630393
Panola6250126
Marshall6126123
Bolivar6115144
Union574186
Pike5613136
Alcorn537290
Lincoln5303131
George471472
Scott459196
Leflore4476140
Prentiss446779
Tippah446480
Itawamba4444100
Adams4416116
Tate4394101
Simpson4335112
Wayne433066
Copiah431787
Yazoo423386
Covington415792
Sunflower4148104
Marion4099104
Leake397586
Coahoma3957100
Newton370875
Grenada3556104
Stone350860
Tishomingo336289
Attala325387
Jasper314162
Winston304691
Clay296473
Chickasaw287065
Clarke282190
Calhoun266141
Holmes262187
Smith250649
Yalobusha221047
Tallahatchie220450
Walthall211058
Greene209045
Lawrence206833
Perry199953
Amite198452
Webster196542
Noxubee178939
Montgomery172454
Jefferson Davis168342
Carroll162137
Tunica153334
Benton142535
Kemper138640
Choctaw127026
Claiborne126834
Humphreys126637
Franklin116728
Quitman103926
Wilkinson101936
Jefferson91333
Sharkey63020
Issaquena1926
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 789054

Reported Deaths: 14022
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1115991765
Mobile708511234
Madison49865633
Shelby36274315
Baldwin36242495
Tuscaloosa33931548
Montgomery33190678
Lee22680220
Calhoun21211410
Morgan19816335
Etowah19300462
Marshall17680274
Houston16823386
St. Clair15442305
Cullman14602258
Limestone14581188
Elmore14480264
Lauderdale13520281
Talladega12958236
DeKalb12199237
Walker10588330
Blount9720157
Autauga9667137
Jackson9385158
Coffee8882175
Dale8609173
Colbert8534184
Tallapoosa6673181
Escambia6591121
Covington6452167
Chilton6385144
Russell607255
Franklin5795101
Chambers5416134
Marion4800120
Dallas4705189
Clarke463279
Pike462397
Geneva4413117
Winston425895
Lawrence4117108
Bibb409381
Barbour347270
Marengo326285
Monroe320053
Butler318290
Randolph305956
Pickens305274
Henry301858
Hale292685
Cherokee289855
Fayette279673
Washington245448
Crenshaw238470
Cleburne235851
Clay228565
Macon220158
Lamar197743
Conecuh182046
Lowndes170758
Coosa170235
Wilcox159736
Bullock149243
Perry136537
Sumter124536
Greene121443
Choctaw73427
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