Trump Digs In on Russia-Bounty Denials, Saying Issue Is a ‘Hoax’

President Donald Trump said he never heard about intelligence indicating Russia offered bounties to kill American troops in Afghanistan because many in the intelligence community doubted the evidence, and he called the issue a “hoax” by his adversaries.

“This was something that never got presented to me -- and they know that -- never got presented because it didn’t rise to that level,” Trump said Wednesday in an interview with Fox Business Network. “From what I hear, and I hear it pretty good, the intelligence people, many of them, didn’t believe it happened at all. I think it’s a hoax. I think it’s a hoax by the newspapers and the Democrats.”

He added, however, that there would be consequences for Russia if it were true. “And if it did happen, the Russians would hear about it,” Trump said.

The comments were Trump’s first public remarks since the alleged plot was reported by the New York Times last week. The president earlier tweeted that an intelligence official he didn’t name told him the bounty allegations weren’t credible -- even though White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany has repeatedly said there’s no consensus on their veracity.

Lawmakers from both parties have called on the Trump administration to provide more information about the intelligence findings, with Democrats questioning why his administration isn’t taking a harder line on Russia.

Congressional Briefing

Representatives of the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency plan to brief the so-called Gang of Eight House and Senate leaders, McEnany said Wednesday. A House aide said the meeting is set for Thursday.

Trump’s claim that the issue is a “hoax” came even as administration officials said they are taking the bounty allegations seriously.

“What happens when any intelligence comes in unverified, if there’s any way that it could affect American troops or allies, it’s immediately communicated on the ground to ensure that troops and commanders and generals can make the best decisions, tactically speaking,” McEnany told reporters on Wednesday.

Earlier Wednesday, Trump national security adviser Robert O’Brien also said the administration had told forces and allies about the possible intelligence so they could enact protective measures, while indicating the White House was working out possible retaliatory steps if the allegations were verified.

‘Strong Action’

“If they’re verified, I guarantee you the president will take strong action,” O’Brien told reporters at the White House. “We’ve been working for several months on options for the president of the United States in the event that this uncorroborated -- as the Department of Defense calls it -- uncorroborated evidence turned out to be true.”

The Times reported Tuesday that analysts found money transfers and other evidence that bolstered the notion that the bounty program was real. The newspaper also said an account of the Russian bounties was included in the president’s written intelligence briefing in late February.

Trump’s reluctance to confront Russia has spawned lingering fears among U.S. lawmakers and allies overseas that Trump prefers to remain willfully ignorant when it comes to allegations of President Vladimir Putin’s plotting against the U.S.

“I think frankly that many of the intelligence people didn’t think it was something that even happened,” Trump said.

His administration has criticized news organizations for reporting that he’d been given written information about the bounty allegations.

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