Biden administration officials on Saturday claimed Chinese spy balloons soared above the United States while former President Donald Trump was in office. Yet officials from that era have responded in singular fashion: Not on our watch.
It took just one briefing to shift the debate from President Joe Biden’s handling of the aerial vehicle — specifically over the decision not to shoot it down over land — to whether the Trump administration missed multiple illegal Chinese incursions into American airspace.
POLITICO spoke with five senior Trump administration officials who said they were never told of such incidents occurring when they were in office. Their collective comments support what former President Donald Trump and members of his team, including his second Defense Secretary Mark Esper, have said on the record.
“This never happened. It would have never happened,” Trump told Fox News on Sunday.
“I’m not aware of a single civilian national security leader from the Trump administration who heard of this,” said a Trump administration national security official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence issues.
The backlash came after senior Biden administration officials spoke to reporters about the Saturday operation that downed the Chinese spy balloon following its one-week traversal of the U.S. A senior DoD official said that similar devices entered American airspace three times during Trump’s tenure and once before during the current administration.
“I can confirm that there have been other incidents where balloons did come close to or cross over U.S. territory,” said Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder on Saturday, declining to provide additional information.
The difference, Defense Department officials said, is that those balloons never stayed above U.S. territory for a significant period of time. When pressed for specifics, such as the date, location and duration of those instances, Biden administration officials refused to provide them citing the classified nature of that information.
Some officials did speak in generalities, however. DoD tracks “hundreds” of balloons every day, but they are typically not deemed a threat. Their presence close to or over the United States would not be brought to the attention of senior leaders unless their behavior was “completely out of the ordinary, like this one,” said one senior Pentagon official.
At lower levels, officials have tracked multiple instances of balloon activity over U.S. territories in recent years. One of the Trump-era balloons hovered over Guam, according to two U.S. officials. And in 2020, the intelligence community assessed that far-smaller balloons detected off the coast of Virginia were Chinese radar-jamming devices, according to a former senior DoD official.
Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, tweeted Sunday that the office of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had informed his office that “several Chinese balloon incidents have happened in the past few years – including over Florida.”
“Why weren’t they shot down?” he added. “And according to several Trump Admin national security officials – they were never informed of these intrusions by the Pentagon.”
The other time a similar airship appeared with Biden in the White House was last February near Hawaii.
Other senior Biden administration officials say it’s possible senior Trump figures weren’t briefed on those incursions. In some cases, devices were smaller and were only in U.S. airspace for short periods of time — making them harder to detect. And in others, some surmised that the information didn’t filter up to the top because the overflights weren’t significant enough.
The events also may not have been discovered in real-time and only pieced together recently with intelligence after the fact. One senior administration official said the events went “undetected.”
“We’ve gotten better at detection over time,” a second senior Biden administration official said, noting that those responsible for surveilling Chinese spy balloons can remain in government even with a new president in the Oval Office.
But the Trump officials adamantly deny any of this ever happened. “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 told CNN on Friday.
“This never happened in the first two years of the Trump administration,” a former senior DoD official said. A senior Trump intelligence official said nothing like what transpired over the past week happened during all four years of the previous administration.
Biden’s team has given no indication it will downgrade intelligence to prove there were past examples of Chinese spy balloons above the U.S. from 2017 to 2021.
All senators will receive a briefing on the just-downed vehicle’s flight on Feb. 15, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Sunday.