EXCLUSIVE: Former President Donald Trump and a number of his top national security and defense officials refuted Biden administration officials’ claims that Chinese surveillance balloons briefly transited the continental United States during the Trump administration, saying it “never happened.”
A defense official on Saturday said Chinese spy balloons briefly traveled over the United States at least three times during the last administration.
But Trump and his officials said that did not occur and criticized the Biden administration for spreading disinformation.
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“This never happened. It would have never happened,” Trump told Fox News Digital on Sunday morning, adding that Beijing “respected us greatly” under his leadership.
“It never happened with us under the Trump administration, and if it did, we would have shot it down immediately,” Trump said. “It’s disinformation.”
Trump said the Biden administration is spreading this because “they look so bad, as usual.”
“They are incompetent,” he said.
John Bolton, former Trump White House national security adviser, told Fox News Digital that he never heard of anything like this under his tenure.
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“I don’t know of any balloon flights by any power over the United States during my tenure, and I’d never heard of any of that occurring before I joined in 2018,” Bolton said. “I haven’t heard of anything that occurred after I left either.”
Bolton said that if the Biden administration has “specific examples, they need to tell Congress.”
He added, “I can say with 100% certainty, not during my tenure.”
Robert O’Brien, who served as White House national security adviser from 2019 to 2021, told Fox News Digital that he had no knowledge of anything like this occurring.
“Unequivocally, I have never been briefed on the issue,” O’Brien said, telling Fox News Digital that his team, which included Matt Pottinger, who served as deputy national security adviser, and Allison Hooker, who served as senior adviser to Asia, also were not briefed on these activities.
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Former acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, who led the intelligence community at the onset of the COVID pandemic, told Fox News Digital that he did “one of the biggest intelligence deep dives on China, their spying and the origins of COVID” during his tenure.
“It never came up,” he said. “If a balloon had come up, we would have known. Someone in the intelligence community would have known, and it would have bubbled up to me to brief the president.”
And former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, who led the National Intelligence office after Grenell and through the end of the Trump administration, also refuted the claim.
“It’s not true. I can refute it,” Ratcliffe said on “Sunday Morning Futures.” “The American people can refute it for themselves. Do you remember during the Trump administration when photographers on the ground and commercial airline pilots were talking about a spy balloon over the United States that people could look up and see, even with the naked eye, and that a media that hated Donald Trump wasn’t reporting?”
He added, “I don’t remember that either because it didn’t happen.”
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia Heino Klinck told Fox News Digital that he also was unaware.
“I can’t rule out that things occurred that I was unaware of, but I do think something like this, I would have been aware of,” Klinck said.
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Former Trump Defense Secretary Mark Esper also said he was never told about Chinese surveillance balloons above the United States during his time at the Pentagon.
“I don’t ever recall somebody coming into my office or reading anything that the Chinese had a surveillance balloon above the United States,” Esper said during an appearance on CNN. “I would remember that for sure.”
And former acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller, who had previously served as director of the National Counterterrorism Center, also told Fox News that he had never heard of a Chinese spy balloon while he was in government.”
“Never heard a whisper, and I have to think if anything like that happened that would have been a huge issue,” Miller told Fox News Digital. “No. Absolutely never heard of anything like that while I was in government or at the Pentagon.”
It is unclear, at this point, if these activities did take place and if it was military leadership that chose not to brief civilian leadership on the matter.
But a senior administration official told Fox News Digital on Sunday that “U.S. intelligence, not the Biden administration, but U.S. intel assesses PRC government surveillance balloons transited the continental U.S. briefly at least three times during the prior administration and once that we know of at the beginning of this administration, but never for this duration of time.”
“They went undetected. And this is part of a larger pattern. These balloons are all part of a PRC fleet of balloons developed to conduct surveillance operations, which have also violated the sovereignty of other countries,” the official said. “These kinds of activities are often undertaken at the direction of the People’s Liberation Army.”
“Over the past several years, Chinese balloons have previously been spotted over countries across five continents, including in East Asia, South Asia and Europe,” the official said.
The official added, “Two things can be true at once: this happened, and it wasn’t detected.”
The Pentagon did not immediately respond to Fox News’ request for comment.
The balloon was shot down on Saturday off the coast of South Carolina after traveling for days over the continental United States.
Senior defense officials said that Saturday was the first time the U.S. had the chance to shoot down the balloon over water. Officials could have shot the balloon down over Montana and northern U.S. states, but out of an abundance of caution, they chose to wait until it was transiting over water to prevent any risk to civilians or civilian property.
The military and intelligence community recovery efforts are underway. Fox News has learned that the FBI will play a role in the recovery efforts, and debris could be brought to the FBI lab in Quantico, Va., for review.