“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 during an appearance on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends.” “I can tell you this: If this information turned out to be true, and now we may never know, but if it turned out to be true, we had options ready to go, and the president was ready to take strong action, as he always is.”
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that White House officials were first informed in early 2019 of intelligence reports that Russia was offering bounties for the killing of U.S. and coalition military personnel, but the information was deemed sketchy and in need of additional confirmation, according to people familiar with the matter.
Several discussions were held with members of the National Security Council staff on the reports, which had been flagged as potentially significant and came at a time of growing tensions between Russia and the United States.
The White House’s awareness of the intelligence in 2019 was first reported by the Associated Press.
In morning tweets, Trump continued to dismiss media reports on the episode, writing that “this is all a made up Fake News Media Hoax started to slander me & the Republican Party.”
“The Russia Bounty story is just another made up by Fake News tale,” he said, taking issue in particular with reports that he had received briefings on intelligence about the alleged bounties.
In an interview with Fox Business Network that aired Wednesday afternoon, Trump insisted that the bounties were a “hoax.”
“I’m sure I don’t see many things that they don’t think rose to the occasion,” Trump said. “This didn’t rise to the occasion. And from what I hear — and I hear it pretty good — the intelligence people didn’t even — many of them didn’t believe it happened at all. . . . I think it’s a hoax by the newspapers and the Democrats.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) slammed Trump in an MSNBC interview on Wednesday, accusing him of a “dereliction of duty.”
“The president is intellectually unprepared, personally unqualified and ethically unfit to serve as president of the United States,” Pelosi said. “And now he has undermined any credibility he may have had as commander in chief, if he could call a possible assault on our troops, our men and women in uniform, by the Russians a hoax, without even wanting to read about it, learn more about it and make a really informed judgment about it.”
She also called for increased sanctions on Russia over the purported bounties.
Asked about possible retaliation against Russia, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters at a news briefing Wednesday, “I won’t get ahead of the president on action. I also won’t get ahead of the intelligence, which at this moment is unverified.”
During the Fox News interview, O’Brien insisted that Trump was not briefed on the matter, calling that “another false story.”
“The president was not briefed because at the time of these allegations, they were uncorroborated,” he said. “As a result, the president’s career CIA briefer decided not to brief him because it was unverified intelligence, and by the way, she’s an outstanding officer, and knowing all the facts I know, I certainly support her decision.”
In fact, an agenda for the oral briefing is often worked out in advance with the national security adviser, with input from the director of national intelligence and the CIA director, said a former senior intelligence official familiar with the briefing process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
O’Brien said leaks to the media about the episode have hampered U.S. intelligence officials’ efforts to determine what actually happened.
“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,” he said. “We were working very hard on this matter. It might be impossible to get to the bottom of it because someone decided to leak to hurt the president rather than uphold their obligations to the American people.”
O’Brien also defended Trump against critics who suggested he is not eager to receive national security briefings, particularly those related to tensions with Russia.
“The president’s an avid consumer of intelligence, and we give to him everything he needs to know,” O’Brien said.
People familiar with the matter noted to The Post that information is sometimes withheld from Trump, who often reacts badly to reports that he thinks might undermine what he considers his good relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Felicia Sonmez, Colby Itkowitz, Karoun Demirjian, Karen DeYoung, Shane Harris and Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.