A group of House Democrats left a classified briefing at the White House Tuesday morning, on reports that Russia paid Taliban fighters bounties on U.S. soldiers, with complaints that Trump administration officials were not more forthcoming about the intelligence. And they also left with lots of questions about why the president—who has dismissed the story as another “Russia hoax”—is not being more forthcoming with criticism for Russian president Vladimir Putin.
“The president called this a hoax, publicly,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the number two House Democrat, at a Capitol Hill press conference after returning from the White House. “Nothing in the briefing we just received led me to believe it’s a hoax. There may be different judgments as to the level of credibility… there was no assertion that the information we had was a hoax.”
“We did not,” said Hoyer, “receive any new, substantive information.”
And Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that the “right people to give the briefing were not in the room,” noting the absence of intelligence agency leaders. Schiff also addressed the question of whether or not Trump himself was briefed on the intelligence, as the initial report in The New York Times alleged and Trump denies. “There may be a reluctance to brief the president on things he doesn’t want to hear,” he said. The Daily Beast reported on Tuesday that top White House officials did not want to brief Trump on the Russia bounty intelligence for fear he’d resist or ignore the information.
Schiff also questioned why the Trump administration has not addressed how it will respond to Russia. "I find it inexplicable in light of these public allegations that the president hasn't come before the country and assured people that he'll get to the bottom of whether Russians are putting bounties on the heads of troops,” said Schiff, who said that U.S. officials should be considering sanctions on Russia, not inviting them to multilateral talks like those in the G7.
The Democratic lawmakers said they were unable to elaborate on why the intelligence was not, as Trump claimed, a “hoax.” They are requesting an all-member briefing from intelligence officials soon.
But a key focus going forward, said Hoyer, is learning more about what Trump knew about the matter, and when. If Harry Truman said the “buck stops with me,” quipped Hoyer, “Trump says, I didn’t see the buck.”
The lawmakers’ tone was a stark departure from what House Republicans had to say when they left a briefing on the matter at the White House yesterday. A GOP attendee, Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN), tweeted that White House officials had debunked what he called The New York Times’ “hit piece,” and blamed the paper for reporting details about the alleged bounty system. “Now it’s impossible to finish the investigation,” said Banks. “Many in the media & Congress rushed to judgment before learning the whole story.”
Democrats were not present at that meeting, which Banks said featured Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and “top intelligence officials.” Spokespeople for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA) all told The Daily Beast on Monday they had not been invited. On Tuesday, Hoyer said that Meadows called him on Sunday night about setting up a briefing for a small group of Democratic lawmakers.
The Democrats’ calls for additional briefings are likely to set up a showdown with the White House, which the lawmakers say has not taken the Russia intelligence seriously enough to warrant the all-member briefing they believe is necessary. Schiff said his committee has also requested additional documents to review as it investigates the matter.