Everyone, it seems, except President Trump — along with the Taliban and Russia.
Despite days of disclosures, Trump cannot get out of hoax mode. He claimed Sunday night that he spoke with “intel” and that the information about Russia’s bounties was “not credible.” Since then, we have seen overwhelming confirmation that the intel was real and is of concern even to Trump’s fellow Republicans. The information was significant enough that it was shared with British intelligence last week.
But Wednesday morning, Trump yet again sought to cast even that nuanced picture into doubt.
“The Russia Bounty story is just another made up by Fake News tale that is told only to damage me and the Republican Party,” Trump said. “The secret source probably does not even exist, just like the story itself.”
He added later: “'No corroborating evidence to back reports.' Department of Defense. Do people still not understand that this is all a made up Fake News Media Hoax started to slander me & the Republican Party.”
This is Trump’s M.O. Stories that are bad for him are never cast in shades of gray; they are always a hoax. The Russia investigation was a hoax, even though special counsel Robert S. Mueller III found significant evidence of obstruction of justice. Impeachment was a hoax, even though the underlying Ukraine allegations were overwhelmingly confirmed. Trump even rather awkwardly tried to cast the coronavirus as his opponents’ “new hoax.” Trump doesn’t quibble with the details. It’s just deny, deny, deny — even when it leads to misperceptions like it did with coronavirus.
But using that language suggests Trump is flatly denying the existence of something nearly everyone else agrees exists.
Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Tex.), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, confirmed after a White House briefing that, “There was intelligence reported on the allegation that the Russians were offering a bounty to the Taliban to kill Americans.” He added that there was a “massive scrub within the intelligence community to try to find out the veracity of this reporting.” He has also suggested that it is serious enough that, if accurate, it would warrant “swift and serious action” against Russia.
That is hardly “this is a hoax and completely made up."
Likewise, even White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany has tacitly acknowledged the existence of the intelligence but has said there was “no consensus” on it and that it hadn’t been completely “verified.” The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has confirmed that, “We are still investigating the alleged intelligence referenced in recent media reporting.”
Even Wednesday morning, as Trump was tweeting, his national security adviser Robert O’Brien was on “Fox and Friends” confirming the situation was serious enough that the military was alerted and that contingencies were being drawn up for how to respond.
“If this eventually becomes something that’s proven, or something that we believe, we need to have options for the president to deal with the Russians,” O’Brien said. He added: “Sadly, because of the leak, it may now become impossible ever to get to the bottom of this, to get to the truth of the matter, and that’s one of the very sad things."
Senate Intelligence Committee Member Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), while making a point to say he was not confirming any classified intelligence, did say “right now, I want to hear their plan for Taliban and GRU [the Russian military spy unit] agents in body bags.”
Another member of that committee, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), said that “the intelligence officials are familiar with it, and briefed him.” He added: “I don’t think it should be a surprise to anybody that the Taliban’s been trying to kill Americans and that the Russians have been encouraging that, if not providing means to make that happen.”
Other Republicans facing reelection — Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) — have responded to the news by calling for labeling Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. “They’ve targeted our institutions and our troops — the US must respond,” Gardner said on Twitter.
Many of these Republicans have emphasized the uncertainty of the situation and have caveated their comments accordingly. Cornyn said “somebody’s leaking classified information and then trying to further a narrative that isn’t necessarily supported by the facts.” But pretty much all of them believe the situation to be serious. Almost none of them are speaking about it in terms of being utterly false and meritless. In fact, about the only others speaking in those term have been Russia and the Taliban.
But that seems to be what Trump is sticking with. The White House and perhaps Trump himself will undoubtedly try to inject some nuance into his comments — just as they did when he invoked a “hoax” on the coronavirus. They will argue that Trump was just talking about specific aspects of the reporting, like that he had been briefed on the intel. But it’s just a fact that he is also striking a far different tone than pretty much everyone else about how significant this situation is. He said the info was “not credible,” when nearly everyone else is taking it seriously and his own officials say they continue to pursue it. He calls it a “hoax” and “fake news,” even as everyone around him is talking about how to react.
That should be cause for concern for all of these Republicans who view the situation as being of grave importance. As has often been the case with Russia, it looks like they might have to get tough with Trump before he would do anything about it.