As Donald Trump’s presidency continues to spawn scandals that would seem farfetched as a movie plot, top Iowa Republicans remain silent whenever possible on news that reflects poorly on their party’s standard-bearer.
The latest shameful example: U.S. Senators Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley have said nothing in public about reports indicating a “Russian military intelligence unit offered and paid bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan.”
Ernst’s silence is particularly striking, since she built her political brand on (and still frequently invokes) her career of service in the Iowa National Guard.
The New York Times was first to report the bombshell on June 26: U.S. intelligence officials “concluded months ago” that a Russian military intelligence unit “covertly offered rewards for successful attacks last year.”
Islamist militants, or armed criminal elements closely associated with them, are believed to have collected some bounty money, the officials said. Twenty Americans were killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2019, but it was not clear which killings were under suspicion.
The intelligence finding was briefed to President Trump, and the White House’s National Security Council discussed the problem at an interagency meeting in late March, the officials said. Officials developed a menu of potential options — starting with making a diplomatic complaint to Moscow and a demand that it stop, along with an escalating series of sanctions and other possible responses, but the White House has yet to authorize any step, the officials said.
Several other news organizations have corroborated the reporting. According to CNN, the assessment “was included in one of President Donald Trump’s daily briefings on intelligence matters sometime in the spring […].” That story noted,
Trump is not known to fully or regularly read the President’s Daily Brief, something that is well-known within the White House. He is instead orally briefed two or three times a week by his intelligence officials. The White House maintains he was not briefed about this in the oral session.
The latest reporting from the New York Times indicates that Trump received a written briefing about the matter in late February.
Moreover, a description of the intelligence assessment that the Russian unit had carried out the bounties plot was also seen as serious and solid enough to disseminate more broadly across the intelligence community in a May 4 article in the C.I.A.’s World Intelligence Review, a classified compendium commonly referred to as The Wire, two officials said.
It gets worse. The Associated Press reported on June 29,
Top officials in the White House were aware in early 2019 of classified intelligence indicating Russia was secretly offering bounties to the Taliban for the deaths of Americans, a full year earlier than has been previously reported, according to U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the intelligence.
The assessment was included in at least one of President Donald Trump’s written daily intelligence briefings at the time, according to the officials. Then-national security adviser John Bolton also told colleagues he briefed Trump on the intelligence assessment in March 2019.
To call these reports troubling is an understatement. It’s not credible to claim that the commander in chief wasn’t briefed about such intelligence. Far more likely: Trump has done nothing because he doesn’t pay attention to his briefings, or he doesn’t want to create friction with Russia.
If the White House is telling the truth, what does it say about this administration that Trump would not be briefed on a matter of life and death for U.S. troops stationed in a war zone?
Senators Grassley and Ernst have issued multiple press releases in recent days, on topics ranging from COVID-19 nursing home deaths to a supposed threat of meat shortages to veterans’ health care. None have touched on this emerging scandal.
Nor have the senators commented on their social media platforms. Since the first New York Times story appeared on June 26, Ernst’s official Twitter account (mostly maintained by staff) has:
Ernst’s campaign Twitter account has:
Grassley famously writes his own tweets and since June 26 has used his Twitter feed to:
The headline news since Friday night has been that a foreign adversary may have paid cash for the murder of U.S. soldiers. Not only has Trump not retaliated against Russia, he has continued to advocate for that country’s foreign policy interests.
I could never have imagined a U.S. president doing nothing or claiming ignorance about a scandal of this magnitude.
And I could never have imagined senators from Iowa saying nothing or feigning ignorance about such dereliction of duty in the White House.
UPDATE: Still no comment from Iowa’s senior senator, but late in the day on June 30, Ernst’s official account put up a reminder that “Russia is not our friend,” and she doesn’t trust Russian President Vladimir Putin. If she harbors any concerns about how obsequious Trump is toward his Russian counterpart, she’s never let on.
I’ve long said that Russia is not our friend, & I don’t trust Putin as far as I can throw him.
So let's continue to push back on Russia; let’s pass the annual defense bill and give our troops & allies resources they need to counter Russian aggression. pic.twitter.com/WHADLJiTUq
— Joni Ernst (@SenJoniErnst) June 30, 2020
So I was at the White House earlier today with a number of my colleagues, and we received a briefing from intelligence officials, including the DNI [Director of National Intelligence]. And after that briefing, you know, the evidence that I have seen and have heard shows no corroboration between what was posted in the New York Times article. So that is very concerning.
However, with that being said, we certainly want to make sure that our troops on the ground are adequately protected, and making sure that they are safe. And that should always be a priority.
So, if we really do want to push back on Russia, you know, the Democrats can join us in passing this National Defense Authorization Act.
Ernst cited several provisions in the bill that would fund weapons and missile defense systems. She said passing the bill would help not only the U.S. but also NATO and our European allies.
Meanwhile, the New York Times reported new details on June 30 about evidence that supported the intelligence assessment.
American officials intercepted electronic data showing large financial transfers from a bank account controlled by Russia’s military intelligence agency to a Taliban-linked account, evidence that supported their conclusion that Russia covertly offered bounties for killing U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan, according to three officials familiar with the intelligence.
Officials did not share some of that corroborating information with House Republicans who were invited to the White House the prevous day.
That briefing focused on intelligence information that supported the conclusion that Russia was running a covert bounty operation and other information that did not support it, according to two people familiar with the meeting. For example, the briefing focused in part on the interrogated detainees’ accounts and the earlier analysts’ disagreement over it.
Both people said the intent of the briefing seemed to be to make the point that the intelligence on the suspected Russian bounty plot was not clear cut. For example, one of the people said, the White House also cited some interrogations by Afghan intelligence officials of other detainees, playing down their credibility by describing them as low-level.
The administration officials did not mention anything in the House Republican briefing about intercepted data tracking financial transfers, both of the people familiar with it said.