One of the few remaining areas of broad bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill has been a tough policy toward Russia—a topic that frequently creates a stark contrast with President Trump, who has maintained personally warm ties to its leader, Vladimir Putin, and has generally followed behind Congress on Russia countermeasures.
But the cognitive dissonance between those things proved increasingly difficult to square on Tuesday for members of the GOP after The New York Times reported that Trump was briefed on a Russian effort to place bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The report said that Trump was given response options in March but had not decided on one, instead appearing to let the issue fade.
Senate Republicans, who have shown a willingness to break with the president on foreign policy and on Russia in particular, responded to the news on Tuesday with a range of responses—skepticism, brush-asides, diatribes against the media and leakers—but few seemed to treat the story as especially legitimate or worthy of all the fuss, or as a red flag regarding Trump’s posture toward Moscow.
“I think it’s fairly safe to say that a lot of the information in the New York Times article was completely false,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), a Trump ally who went to the White House on Tuesday morning for a briefing on the government’s intelligence surrounding the bounties. “Whether this should have been highlighted to the president, I certainly understand why it wasn’t. Listen, the president’s got a big job. He can’t be made aware of every piece of unverified intelligence, okay?”
Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) went a step further. “I think it’s pretty well documented that the article in The New York Times was written in a way to try to embarrass the Republicans in Congress, and I think it’s pretty well documented that The New York Times hates Republicans,” he told reporters. “And so I’d rather wait, and get all the facts.”
On the other end of the GOP spectrum were other lawmakers who hadn’t yet seen the intelligence but acknowledged that, if the Russians really were enticing Taliban soldiers to kill U.S. troops with bounties, it would in fact be a big deal. “If it happened, it’s very serious,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), who added that it would certainly be warranted for Congress to consider additional sanctions.
A group of House Democrats arriving at the Capitol from a White House briefing on Tuesday might as well have come from another universe. “Nothing in the briefing we just received led me to believe it’s a hoax,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the number two House Democrat, referring to Trump’s own assertion on the intel. “There may be different judgments as to the level of credibility… there was no assertion that the information we had was a hoax.”
The discrepancy in those reactions figures to be a wrench in Congress’ ability to respond to what amounts to a shocking account of a Russian effort to target U.S. military personnel and one that would, in any other circumstance, likely prompt a severe and bipartisan response from Capitol Hill.
While Democratic leaders push for additional briefings and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) vows to investigate the matter, some Republicans threw cold water on the idea of picking up the thread at all.
“This is Democrats and the press. Again, the New York Times article, a lot of that is simply false—it’s a false leak, okay?” said Johnson, when asked by The Daily Beast if he wanted Congress to probe the intelligence further. “You’re making a mountain out of a molehill here.”
Indeed, some Senate Republicans, echoing language from White House officials, cast the real problem from the Times story as leaking from the administration. “I think the reporting was absolutely inaccurate,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), who went to the White House on Tuesday morning. Asked if she wanted to see Congress investigate further, Ernst responded, “I think we need to know where the leaks are coming from.”
The GOP-led Senate has voted to approve bipartisan sanctions on Russia on several occasions in Trump’s presidency, including as a direct response to its efforts to meddle in the 2016 U.S. election. In January 2019, 11 Senate Republicans broke with their party to vote with Democrats on a measure to block the Trump administration from easing sanctions on Russian companies linked to Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch and Putin ally. The measure didn’t reach the 60-vote threshold required to pass, but the message was sent.
Democrats said on Tuesday that placing bounties on U.S. soldiers would almost certainly justify a similar, if not tougher, response. Schiff said that Russia, as a starter, should not be invited back into the G7 group of leading economies due to this news. “We should be considering what sanctions are appropriate to further deter Russia’s malign activities,” said Schiff, “not further ingratiating Russia into the community of civilized nations.”
On that score, the Senate GOP leader, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), agreed. Asked on Tuesday if Russia should be invited back into the G7, he responded “absolutely not.”
Range of opinion aside, it seems Congress will probe the Russia bounty intelligence, and any possible consequences, behind closed doors, at least for now. Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, for example, are slated to receive a private briefing from intelligence officials on the Russia bounty issue in the coming days.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who is the acting chair of the panel, declined to comment on the specifics of the Times report, but told reporters it’s a “well established fact” that U.S. troops face threats from forces acting as proxies for other adversaries.
But, said Rubio, “I think almost every report on reported intelligence information is inaccurate, not because reporters are wrong, but because it misunderstands the purpose of intelligence products. There’s a big difference between analysis and raw intelligence, and it’s a point that I think is often missed.”
However, the senator added, “You’ve never had to convince me to sanction Vladimir Putin… there’s no shortage of reasons why we should study more sanctions.”