The controversy over reports that Russia targeted U.S. troops in Afghanistan is shining a spotlight back on long-running foreign policy divisions between President TrumpDonald John TrumpProtesters tear down statue of Christopher Columbus in Baltimore 'Independence Day' star Bill Pullman urges Americans to wear a 'freedom mask' in July 4 PSA Protesters burn American flag outside White House after Trump's July Fourth address MORE and GOP lawmakers.
The Trump administration provided a round of briefings and closed-door documents in the wake of a flurry of news reports that Moscow offered bounties to Taliban-linked fighters to target U.S. and coalition forces. That move by administration officials was meant to quell the bipartisan outcry on Capitol Hill, particularly after reports that Trump was previously briefed on the matter.
While several GOP senators defended Trump, the debacle revived broader concerns among Republicans about the administration’s relationship with Russia.
Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyQAnon scores wins, creating GOP problem Republicans fear backlash over Trump's threatened veto on Confederate names Overnight Defense: Lawmakers demand answers on reported Russian bounties for US troops deaths in Afghanistan | Defense bill amendments target Germany withdrawal, Pentagon program giving weapons to police MORE (R-Utah), while declining to discuss classified material, noted that based on publicly reported information, Russia has provided funds to the Taliban, which has killed Americans.
“We shouldn’t be cozied up to Russia or giving them favors of any kind,” Romney told The Hill. “What we do know is Russia’s been helping the Taliban, the Taliban’s been killing Americans, and that’s all I need to know to know that we should be tough on Russia.”
“I certainly wouldn’t want to be inviting them to the G-7,” he added, referring to the Group of Seven.
Sen. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseSenators push foreign media to disclose if they are registered as foreign agents Beijing: US 'oppressing Chinese companies' after Huawei, ZTE action Senate Republicans defend Trump's response on Russian bounties MORE (R-Neb.) added that the administration needs to be communicating “clearly and aggressively” against Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinWhat must our Gold Star Families think? Putin: Rainbow flag at US Embassy in Moscow 'revealed something about the people that work there' With US sidelined, Macron's hubris and hypocrisy are on full display MORE.
"I'm interested in hearing the administration speak clearly about their plans that aren't just hypothetical sanctions sometime out in the future, but what should we be doing now to make the GRU have more doubts about their behavior not just in Afghanistan but more broadly," Sasse said.
The New York Times first reported on June 26, followed by several other news outlets, that the U.S. intelligence community concluded months ago that a unit within the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, secretly offered payments to Taliban-linked militants for attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan last year.
The reports unleashed a firestorm from Democrats, who have called for all-member briefings and new sanctions against Russia.
“Our Armed Forces would be better served if President Trump spent more time reading his daily briefing and less time planning military parades and defending relics of the Confederacy,” Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money: Breaking down the June jobs report | The biggest threats facing the recovery | What will the next stimulus bill include? Military bases should not be renamed, we must move forward in the spirit of reconciliation Pelosi: Trump 'himself is a hoax' MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerPublic awareness campaigns will protect the public during COVID-19 Republicans fear backlash over Trump's threatened veto on Confederate names Overnight Defense: House panel votes to ban Confederate flag on all Pentagon property | DOD report says Russia working to speed US withdrawal from Afghanistan | 'Gang of Eight' to get briefing on bounties Thursday MORE (D-N.Y.) said in a joint statement after a briefing with CIA Director Gina HaspelGina Cheri HaspelOvernight Defense: House panel votes to ban Confederate flag on all Pentagon property | DOD report says Russia working to speed US withdrawal from Afghanistan | 'Gang of Eight' to get briefing on bounties Thursday Top intelligence officials to brief Gang of Eight on Thursday The Hill's Morning Report - Officials crack down as COVID-19 cases soar MORE.
The White House and other administration officials have sought to downplay the intelligence in recent days, saying there was dissent within the intelligence community about it and that it remains “unverified.”
The administration denied that Trump was briefed on the intelligence, but has sidestepped questions about subsequent reports that the material was included in the president’s written intelligence brief, known as the President’s Daily Brief, earlier this year.
Trump subsequently dismissed the reports about the bounties as a “hoax.”
But several GOP lawmakers indicated that, even after being briefed by administration officials or reviewing classified intelligence, they still had questions and broader concerns about Russia’s activities.
Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyGOP senators push for quick, partial reopening of economy NSA improperly collected US phone records in October, new documents show Overnight Defense: Pick for South Korean envoy splits with Trump on nuclear threat | McCain blasts move to suspend Korean military exercises | White House defends Trump salute of North Korean general MORE (R-Pa.) is calling for an all-senators briefing after reviewing documents made available to all senators in the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility.
“This information raises many questions and administration officials should come before the Senate and provide a classified briefing and answer questions from all members. If it is concluded that Russia offered bounties to murder American soldiers, a firm American response is required in short order,” he said in a statement.
Reps. Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump lays low as approval hits 18-month low House panel votes to constrain Afghan drawdown, ask for assessment on 'incentives' to attack US troops Overnight Defense: House panel votes to ban Confederate flag on all Pentagon property | DOD report says Russia working to speed US withdrawal from Afghanistan | 'Gang of Eight' to get briefing on bounties Thursday MORE (R-Wyo.), who hasn’t shied away from criticizing Trump on foreign policy, and Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryHouse panel approves 0.5B defense policy bill House Armed Services votes to make Pentagon rename Confederate-named bases in a year House panel votes to limit Trump's Germany withdrawal MORE (R-Texas), the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a joint statement after a briefing at the White House that they remained concerned and predicted there would be further briefings.
“It has been clear for some time that Russia does not wish us well in Afghanistan. We believe it is important to vigorously pursue any information related to Russia or any other country targeting our forces. Congress has no more important obligation than providing for the security of our nation and ensuring our forces have the resources they need,” they said.
Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntThe Hill's Morning Report - Republicans shift, urge people to wear masks Hillicon Valley: Facebook takes down 'boogaloo' network after pressure | Election security measure pulled from Senate bill | FCC officially designating Huawei, ZTE as threats Senate GOP starting to draft next coronavirus proposal MORE (R-Mo.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he expected lawmakers would be talking with the CIA and National Security Agency after a closed-door meeting with Director of National Intelligence John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeFormer Trump intelligence officials say they had trouble briefing him on Russia: report GOP senator calls for Russian bounties briefing after reviewing intelligence Overnight Defense: House panel votes to ban Confederate flag on all Pentagon property | DOD report says Russia working to speed US withdrawal from Afghanistan | 'Gang of Eight' to get briefing on bounties Thursday MORE.
“Russia was just accused of putting a bounty on the head of not only American service people, but our allies in some parts of the world. If that's true, a price should be paid for that. And we're going to be working hard in the next days to determine how deep that intelligence goes and how true that allegation is,” he added during a separate Senate floor speech.
Foreign policy, and Trump’s warm tone toward Putin, has been a running point of contention between GOP lawmakers and the president dating back to his days as a candidate, when he put an isolationist foreign policy at the center of his 2016 messaging strategy.
Since winning the White House, some of the biggest points of division between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue have been on foreign policy.
In 2017, Congress passed a Russia sanctions measure over the objections of the White House. Two years later, the Senate included a rebuke, crafted by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPublic awareness campaigns will protect the public during COVID-19 Democrats: A moment in history, use it wisely 'Comrade' Trump gets 'endorsement' from Putin in new mock ad by Lincoln Project MORE (R-Ky.), of Trump’s Syria policy into a broader piece of legislation. The Senate has also voted multiple times to block part of Trump’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia, forcing him to issue vetoes.
Republican senators are also trying to use a mammoth defense bill to limit Trump’s ability to remove U.S. troops from Germany.
Romney, as well as Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamJaime Harrison seeks to convince Democrats he can take down Lindsey Graham Hillicon Valley: Senate panel advances bill targeting online child sexual abuse | Trump administration awards tech group contract to build 'virtual' wall | Advocacy groups urge Congress to ban facial recognition technologies Senate panel advances bill targeting online child sexual abuse MORE (R-S.C.), Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioCongress eyes tighter restrictions on next round of small business help Trump administration eyes new strategy on COVID-19 tests ACLU calls on Congress to approve COVID-19 testing for immigrants MORE (R-Fla.), Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsHillicon Valley: Facebook takes down 'boogaloo' network after pressure | Election security measure pulled from Senate bill | FCC officially designating Huawei, ZTE as threats Democrats, voting rights groups pressure Senate to approve mail-in voting resources To safeguard our elections, Democrats and Republicans must work together MORE (D-Del.), Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineOvernight Defense: Lawmakers demand answers on reported Russian bounties for US troops deaths in Afghanistan | Defense bill amendments target Germany withdrawal, Pentagon program giving weapons to police Senators aim to limit Trump's ability to remove troops from Germany Filibuster reform gains steam with Democrats MORE (D-Va.) and Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenCongress eyes tighter restrictions on next round of small business help Watchdog accuses Commerce of holding up 'Sharpiegate' probe report The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Stagwell President Mark Penn says Trump is losing on fighting the virus; Fauci says U.S. 'going in the wrong direction' in fight against virus MORE (D-N.H.), filed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to prohibit the administration from reducing the number of active-duty troops in Germany below 34,500 unless the Pentagon can meet several certifications, including that it is in the national security interest of the United States and would not negatively undermine European alliances or NATO.
Trump has also floated trying to invite Russia back into the G-7 after it was ousted from the then-Group of Eight in 2014 for annexing Crimea and supporting pro-Kremlin separatists in eastern Ukraine.
McConnell sidestepped questions about Trump's knowledge of the reported Russian bounties but said that he would "absolutely not" be surprised if it was true.
"They are trying to create a problem for us everywhere," he told reporters.
Asked if Trump should invite Russia back to the G-7, he added: "Absolutely not."