The White House this past week was facing a familiar series of questions as it grappled with reports of a Russian bounty program targeting American troops in Afghanistan: What did the President know and when did he know it?
The answer was also familiar: Blame the media, POLITICO writes.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany called a press briefing on Tuesday where she chastised the media for reporting on the story, before taking just a few questions and walking off. A cadre of national security officials — from the CIA to the Pentagon to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — all issued statements putting the focus on leaks to the press.
McEnany highlighted the surge in criminal leak referrals under President Donald Trump — averaging 104 per year, up from an average of 39 per year under President Barack Obama.
“Because somebody decided to leak this intelligence while we were trying to get to the bottom of it, that may never be possible now, and that’s a shame,” national security adviser Robert O’Brien told reporters.
The series of statements didn’t address the veracity of the reports — which have now been confirmed by numerous outlets — what the administration was planning as a potential response, and what, exactly, the President may have known.
It’s become standard operating procedure for the White House: Redirect attention to the media when pressed about Trump’s knowledge of — and response to — various threats.
When the administration was grilled earlier this year about when Trump first learned about the coronavirus, the White House said it was the press — not Trump — that had downplayed the outbreak’s severity. The tactic has had the effect of distracting from the intelligence itself. Yet it has also inadvertently revealed how intelligence gets from the ground to the President’s desk, POLITICO adds.
“It’s a deflection — it’s like yelling squirrel — they’re not addressing what the underlying substance is, they’re trying to point to the shiny object in the corner,” said Mark Zaid, a national security attorney who represented the whistleblower who initially revealed the details of Trump’s controversial phone call with the Ukrainian president. “The White House has only made it worse by their deflection because it’s turned the whole situation upside down so the underbelly is exposed.”
The catalyst for the most recent conversation about American intelligence was a New York Times report late last month. It claimed the White House had intelligence that the Russian government had paid bounties to Taliban-linked fighters in Afghanistan for the heads of U.S. soldiers.
The news had serious implications for Trump. Further reporting on the bounty program has revealed that high level officials were aware of the intelligence and that it was included in February in the Presidential Daily Brief, a collection of important and classified material for the commander in chief.
Yet senior officials have supported the President’s claim that he was not briefed on the information, although lawmakers have confirmed the information was included in the written daily briefing.
Blaming the media is a favorite tactic for Trump’s White House. The President has accused the media, often without evidence, for any variety of things: Stoking violence at protests about police brutality and racial injustice; driving down the stock market amid fears about the coronavirus and clashes between Saudi Arabia and Russia over oil production; trying to keep the country closed during the coronavirus in an effort to damage Trump’s reelection bid.
And when discussing the coronavirus, McEnany frequently goes after the media when pressed about Trump’s response to the pandemic. She claims the media underestimated its severity, ducking questions about how Trump has at times downplayed the outbreak, POLITICO notes.