President Donald Trump is denying knowledge of an arrangement in which Russian military officials reportedly offered to secretly pay Taliban fighters for killing American troops in Afghanistan.
A pair of explosive reports from the New York Times indicates that United States officials learned months ago of a Russian intelligence unit secretly offering bounties to the Taliban for killing US and other coalition forces in Afghanistan, as peace talks to end the war continue. American spies and commandos reportedly told their superiors about the plot as early as January, after discovering a Taliban outpost rife with US cash.
The reports come amid ongoing efforts to pull American troops out of Afghanistan following a peace deal reached earlier this year, which would bolster the president’s reelection campaign. The situation has now sparked questions from both Democrats and Trump allies.
According to the Times, American intelligence officials told the president about the findings in March and offered a number of options for reprimanding Russia, including escalating sanctions or issuing diplomatic complaints. But Trump didn’t choose to retaliate at all, instead apparently ignoring what intelligence suggested was an unprecedented Russian attack on US troops — and a significant escalation of the country’s support for the Taliban.
Twenty Americans were killed in Afghanistan in 2019 and four others were killed in early 2020, though the Taliban has not attacked any American bases since February. It’s unclear which killings may be connected to the Russian plot or whether any bounties were actually paid.
National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe denied that the president had been briefed on the issue on Saturday, though he didn’t dispute the veracity of the Russian bounty plot. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany also issued a statement Saturday saying Trump did not receive a briefing but that “does not speak to the merit of the alleged intelligence.”
Trump followed suit on Sunday morning, tweeting that nobody briefed him, Vice President Mike Pence or Chief of Staff Mark Meadows about the scheme. The Russian embassy and the Taliban have also denied the Times report.
…Nobody’s been tougher on Russia than the Trump Administration. With Corrupt Joe Biden & Obama, Russia had a field day, taking over important parts of Ukraine – Where’s Hunter? Probably just another phony Times hit job, just like their failed Russia Hoax. Who is their “source”?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 28, 2020
Trump added, “Nobody’s been tougher on Russia than the Trump Administration.”
However, while some of Trump’s advisers have pushed for more stringent policies toward Russia, Trump has consistently been more amenable to the country’s authoritarian leadership.
Trump has indicated that he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assertion that the country did not interfere in the 2016 US elections, questioning his own intelligence officials who have said otherwise. He has reportedly suggested multiple times that the US should pull out of NATO, which would be a massive win for Russia and a significant blow to US allies in Europe. And in 2017 when Congress passed new sanctions on Russia related to its election interference with a veto-proof majority, Trump reluctantly signed the bill and implied it was unconstitutional.
If Trump was briefed in March, the timing was not good for him. He was reportedly told about the plot just as the coronavirus was beginning to explode throughout the country, and the president — facing reelection in November — hopes to complete the peace deal with the Taliban in order to put an end to the war in Afghanistan.
Top Democrats condemn Trump’s denial, Republicans question what’s next, and intelligence officials are mixed
Despite Trump’s assertion that “everybody” is denying the Times’s reporting, intelligence experts’ responses varied over the weekend.
Richard Grenell, former acting director of national intelligence, wrote a series of tweets Sunday arguing that the reporting is false. “No one would be fine with this if it were true,” he wrote.
Former National Security Adviser John Bolton told NBC that it would be “disturbing” if officials hadn’t told the president about the issue if the intelligence was reliable. “If there’s any accuracy to it,” Bolton said, “that is a very, very serious matter.”
Democrats, meanwhile, expressed outrage over the findings. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, derided Trump at a campaign event for not punishing Russia.
“His entire presidency has been a gift to Putin, but this is beyond the pale,” Biden said during a virtual town hall Saturday. “It’s a betrayal of the most sacred duty we bear as a nation, to protect and equip our troops when we send them into harm’s way.”
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi told ABC’s This Week that she was not aware of the intelligence reports on the Russian plan, despite being one of the “Gang of Eight” congressional leaders who are regularly briefed on intelligence matters. However, she said, “it’s totally outrageous” that the president did not respond to news of the scheme.
“I don’t know what the Russians have on the president politically, personally, financially, whatever it is,” Pelosi said. “The president wants to ignore any allegation against Russia.”
Other Democrats questioned the likelihood that the president wouldn’t be looped in on a matter of such severity. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), Hillary Clinton’s former running mate, said Trump was “cozying up to Putin,” while his administration knew of the Russian scheme. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) tweeted that Ratcliffe “is lying (which is a massive problem) or the DNI withheld earthshaking information from President Trump,” which is also a problem.
The Times reported earlier this year that it’s difficult for intelligence officials to keep Trump’s attention when briefings are provided. Ten current and former intelligence officials who spoke with the Times said he is easily distracted, veers off on tangents, and rarely reads the reports, instead relying on conservative media or friends for information.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a reliable supporter of the president’s, said on Twitter that he expects the administration “to take such allegations seriously.” Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), chair of the House Republican Conference, wrote that Trump “must explain” why he wasn’t briefed, who did know and when, and “what has been done in response.”
Now that Trump does know about the alleged plot, it’s unclear whether he will choose to take action, but some of his supporters are looking for answers. The president has long had a soft spot for Putin — one of the reasons Democrats and other critics are eyeing his denial with suspicion. It remains to be seen whether Trump will choose to act against the Russian leader he has often praised.
Support Vox’s explanatory journalism
Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.