Rep. Chris Stewart defends President Trump over reports Russia paid the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers

(Photo courtesy of the White House) Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, posted this photo on Twitter on Nov. 5, 2019, saying he had recently met with President Donald Trump. He said they talked about the nation's "most pressing issues." He declined to elaborate when asked by The Tribune for more information.

Washington • Rep. Chris Stewart says many government leaders — including himself — received briefing documents that suggested Russia was paying the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers, but that no one took action because there was scant evidence proving that was the case.

Stewart, a Utah Republican who has been a staunch supporter of President Donald Trump, defended Trump in an appearance on CNN where the congressman said Russia “absolutely” could be targeting American service members but there’s not enough known yet to make such an accusation. Trump has blasted reports in major U.S. publications that reported the Russia-Taliban connection, calling them “Fake News.”

The White House has said the president was never briefed on the intelligence, though The New York Times and Washington Post said the connection was included in a daily briefing document Trump received in February.

Stewart, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said that document can sometimes stretch to 60 pages and not every item has been thoroughly reviewed.

“It just didn’t reach a level of credibility,” Stewart told CNN’s Chris Cuomo this week. “And by the way, here’s something that I think would back that up for you, Chris. It’s important to know [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi had this presented to her as well in much the same format. So did [House Intelligence Committee Chairman] Adam Schiff. All of us did. It was in the general intelligence analysis that we were seeing on a daily or weekly basis. None of them picked it out and wanted to pursue it either. It was just one of many things that they were concerned about.”

Pelosi’s office said the congressman’s comment about the speaker is “false.”

Meanwhile, Politico reported this week that Stewart and his GOP colleagues on the Intel Committee have skipped all but one meeting of the committee since before Congress went into a pandemic-related lockdown.

The committee has held at least seven hearings and roundtable discussions since March, all unclassified, but that only one Republican has shown up — Rep. John Ratcliffee, R-Texas, who was confirmed as the head of the Office of National Intelligence a week later.

Republicans have argued that the committee should not be discussing sensitive information in virtual settings and instead should meet in person in a secure Capitol room.

Stewart told Politico that it wasn’t a “boycott” of the committee.

“It’s not an organized effort at all,” he said. “I would just say that we have concerns about the format.”

“We’re here. Why aren’t we doing it like we used to?” Stewart told the news outlet. “I think we can meet together and do it safely.”

Stewart's office said Wednesday it had no further comment.

The Utah congressman came under fire in November for claiming to have heard from nearly every witness in the impeachment hearings against Trump and that there was no justification for bringing the charges of abuse of power and obstruction of justice.

But Stewart had attended only half the eight depositions that had been held at the time. His office said that Stewart had read the transcripts of sessions that were held while Congress wasn’t in session.

“I have been a part of these impeachment proceedings from the very first day,” Stewart wrote in an Oct. 30 op-ed in the Deseret News. “I’ve heard from nearly every witness. I remain unconvinced that there is evidence of a crime, much less a high crime, as the Constitution prescribes for an impeachable offense.”

In fact, transcripts of the depositions show Stewart was not present to hear from several key witnesses the Democrats called.

Stewart later voted against bringing impeachment articles against Trump.

During his CNN appearance this week, Stewart noted his service in the U.S. Air Force and his father’s.

“There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do to protect our soldiers. And I think every person in leadership feels that way,” Stewart told the cable network. “The truth is, is that we don’t know [if the allegation of Russia-Taliban collusion is true]. Could Russia have done that? Absolutely. Russia is not our friend. They’re not an ally. They seek to harm us. They seek to diminish us and diminish our role in the world everywhere, but particularly in a very vulnerable spot like the Middle East. So could they have done that? Absolutely. Do we know they did that? We just don’t know yet.”

Stewart added that there are hundreds if not thousands of times the intelligence community brings forward information that hasn't been verified but is trying to vet.

“Some of them turn out to have veracity, be accurate,” he said. “Many of them don’t. This is ongoing battle that we have to try to keep ahead of threats like this. Well, once again – [to be] really clear: Russia, would it shock me if they did this? Absolutely wouldn’t.”

But without evidence backing it up, Stewart said it didn't rise to the level of a verbal briefing to the president on the reports.

The Times reported, citing unnamed sources with knowledge of the intelligence, that American officials have electronic data showing large financial transfers from Russia’s military spy agency to accounts linked to the Taliban, evidence of payments to support the information that Russia was behind efforts to target U.S. troops.