Donald Trump’s claim not to have been briefed about intelligence suggesting Russia paid Taliban-linked militants to kill US soldiers is “just not the way the system works”, former national security adviser John Bolton said on Sunday.
Bolton was appearing on Face the Nation, the Sunday talk show from ViacomCBS, the communications giant which owns Simon & Schuster, the publisher which put out Bolton’s Trump White House memoir, The Room Where It Happened, over the president’s objection.
Elsewhere, former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice said Bolton would have known about the bounties intelligence while he was in the role, which he left in September 2019, and would therefore have briefed Trump himself.
“I don’t buy this story that he was never briefed,” Rice told NBC’s Meet The Press. “I believe that … when the information first came to light in 2019, my successor, John Bolton, would have walked straight into the Oval Office, as I would have, and informed the president of this intelligence.”
Bolton’s book, a tell-all which sold nearly 800,000 copies in its first week in stores, is named for the Oval Office and contains numerous shocking descriptions of Trump’s behaviour. But it does not mention the alleged bounties plot.
“I’m not going to disclose classified information,” Bolton told CBS. “I’ve got the struggle with the president trying to repress my book on that score already.”
Bolton submitted his book to a national security review but was scolded by a federal judge for “likely publishing classified materials”, “gambling with the national security of the United States” and “exposing … himself to civil (and potentially criminal) liability”.
On Sunday, Bolton said: “I will say this. All intelligence is distributed along the spectrum of uncertainty. And this intelligence in 2020, by the administration’s own admission, was deemed credible enough to give to our allies. So the notion that you only give the really completely 100% verified intelligence to the president would mean you give him almost nothing. And that’s just not the way the system works.”
The existence of intelligence about a bounties plot, which Russia has denied, was first reported by the New York Times then confirmed by other outlets. Trump attacked the Times on Twitter this weekend.
Amid inconsistent White House explanations for Trump’s supposed ignorance on the matter, current national security adviser Robert O’Brien said information was withheld by a CIA official, even though it was included in the president’s daily brief.
“The president’s career CIA briefer decided not to brief him because it was unverified intelligence,” O’Brien told Fox News, adding: “She made that call and, you know what, I think she made the right call, so I’m not going to criticize her. And knowing the facts that I know now, I stand behind that call.”
O’Brien was widely criticised. Ned Price, a former CIA analyst, told the Guardian: “This is the same scapegoating play that the White House ran in the coronavirus context – blaming Trump’s intelligence briefer for something that is chiefly and fundamentally a failing of the White House staff.”
Bolton said any decision to withhold intelligence would “certainly not” be “made only by the briefer who briefs the president twice a week. That’s a decision that at least when I was there, would have been made by the director of national intelligence, the director of the CIA, myself and the briefer together.”
Though his book is a brutal and extensive anatomisation of Trump’s personality and fitness or otherwise for office, Bolton sidestepped a chance to criticise O’Brien, saying: “I don’t want to make this a matter of personalities.”
Nor would he say if he had known of the bounties intelligence or not.
“What was made public in 2018,” he said, “was Russian assistance to the Taliban, and that’s been known for some time. That alone is troubling.
“What is particularly troubling, if true, is this latest information that they were … providing compensation for killing Americans. And that is the kind of thing that you go to the president on and say, ‘Look … we may not know everything on this, but a nuclear power is reportedly providing bounties to kill Americans.’
“That’s the kind of thing you need to have in the president’s view so that he can think about it as he develops – well, at least as normal presidents develop strategy to handle Russia, to handle Afghanistan.”