In the days since The New York Times broke the news on U.S. intelligence examining claims of Russian bounties being offered to kill American military personnel in Afghanistan, President Donald Trump has turned his ire not at the Russian government, but instead on two of his favorite enemies: the news media and their confidential sources.
According to two people familiar with the matter, the president in recent days has privately expressed—“rather loudly,” in the words of one of the sources—his desire for a leak investigation into how that story ended up in the Times, and his wish for the leaker or leakers to face a heavy prison sentence.
This happens as the president publicly trashes the Times reporting as yet another “hoax” generated by his foes to damage him, and as the Trump administration does everything it can to publicly shame the leakers of the classified information. “You may seek to undermine our President but in fact, you undermine our country’s safety and our country’s security,” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said on Tuesday at a press briefing, in a scripted warning that was quickly clipped and blasted out on Trump’s official social media feeds.
It’s one of a number of ways in which administration officials and Trumpworld figures, including the president himself, have oscillated between claiming the story about the Russian bounties is false and asserting that the intelligence is accurate (though uncorroborated) and therefore dangerous to share with the public.
And as the president obsesses over who in his own government is trying to stab him in the back and leak to the press, officials elsewhere in the upper echelons of his administration have intensely debated for days the various diplomatic and retaliatory options against Russia that they could present to Trump.
“In a normal world, the president would get on the phone to his foreign counterpart and warn him that if we ever track back an attack on our forces to Russian support, that’s an actionable offense—and in theory he would mean it, and the warning would be taken seriously,” said one former senior Pentagon official. “But not in this world, unfortunately.”
As a U.S. intelligence report about Russian assistance to the Taliban circulates on Capitol Hill and throughout the national security apparatus, officials inside the State Department have begun to discuss whether to approach Russia through diplomatic channels to discuss the matter, according to one official familiar with those talks. Defense Department officials told The Daily Beast that leaders in the field have issued warnings about the Russian bounties to troops in the field.
“There are a range of things we could be doing on the ground to respond and I’m sure some of those things are taking place,” a second former senior Pentagon official said. “But it really is a question of whether the president is concerned enough to make those calls.”
The push by the president to open an investigation into who leaked to The New York Times comes as officials inside the White House and within the intelligence and national security apparatus scramble to confront a burgeoning public-relations crisis. (Despite the president’s enthusiasm for finding a culprit, the Department of Justice has yet to make any moves on following through on Trump’s wishes, according to two individuals familiar, but did not rule out the possibility.)
Over the past five days, loyalists of President Trump have seemed confused about whether to write-off the Times and its reporting all together or if they should condemn the outlet for publishing classified information. The administration faced a similar situation with the publishing of former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s book as it tried to claim at the same time that its contents were erroneous but also classified.
Meanwhile, some of the president’s most influential and visible allies in right-wing media have attempted to make the leak itself, not the contents of the intel or the allegations, the true villain in the story, re-running some of their well-worn defenses of Trump during the Russia investigation and the Ukraine scandal. Fox News host and Trump pal Jesse Watters said on Monday that it appeared to him that “some sort of hater in the intelligence community” leaked to the media in an effort to perpetuate “this Russian cloud around the president.” Fox Business star Lou Dobbs, a top informal adviser to Trump, said on-air Tuesday that “what is troubling to me is three and a half years into this president's first term, we still have leaks that can be this noxious and this…annoying.”
The real struggle for the administration seems to be not how it syncs messaging about the intelligence—there’s consensus that it has not been corroborated—but how various agencies address the question of whether and how the president was briefed. The Daily Beast and other outlets have reported the intelligence was included in a version of the President’s Daily Brief earlier this year, though it remains unclear whether any official spoke directly to Trump about the intelligence and to what extent those officials raised the alarm. Various senior Trump officials, including Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, have said the president was not briefed on the intelligence because there was not a consensus on whether the intelligence had been corroborated.
“I don’t know that anyone dropped the ball as much as they didn’t want to take [Trump] what he didn’t want to hear,” one of the former Pentagon officials said. “I’m sure that’s consistent practice by now.”
According to three individuals who have read or who are familiar with the intelligence report, the assessment is long and covers the span of several years, focusing generally on how Russia provides support, including financial assistance, to the Taliban. The report also touches on the Russian bounties first reported by The New York Times, though those who read the report say that data point is circumstantial and that the investigation is ongoing. Two individuals who spoke to The Daily Beast, though, said it is clear from the report that there’s an increased risk for U.S. troops in Afghanistan because of Russia’s behavior.
As Trump continues to demand a leak investigation and fumes about the intelligence being made public, his deputies are on edge and have begun pointing fingers.
In a rare public statement in front of the White House Wednesday, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien told reporters that it was a senior Central Intelligence Agency official’s decision not to brief the president because the intelligence was “uncorroborated.”