Trump says report on Russian Afghanistan bounties isn't credible
By JENNIFER EPSTEIN AND BEN BRODY | Bloomberg | Published: June 29, 2020
President Donald Trump said in a tweet that U.S. intelligence officials told him a report that the Russian government paid bounties for American and allied troops to be killed in Afghanistan wasn't credible, and therefore didn't brief him about it.
The White House earlier had denied reports that Trump was briefed by intelligence officials about — but had done nothing to respond to — the Russian bounties.
Trump tweeted late Sunday over a key Senate Republican ally, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who said it was "imperative Congress get to the bottom of" the allegations about Russia.
"I expect the Trump administration to take such allegations seriously and inform Congress immediately as to the reliability of these news reports," the South Carolina Republican said. Graham accompanied Trump on Sunday to the president's northern Virginia golf club.
The alleged Russian bounties have swiftly emerged as yet another political crisis for a president already struggling to defend his response to the coronavirus outbreak that's resurgent across the South, as well as continuing nationwide protests against police brutality. News reports on the bounties, and whether Trump knew about them, have drawn fresh attention to the president's efforts to build warmer relations with the Kremlin.
Trump said earlier this month in a Fox News Radio interview that he'd like Russian President Vladimir Putin to attend the Group of Seven meeting the U.S. will host later this year. Russia was thrown out of what was then the G-8 after annexing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
The Washington Post reported earlier Sunday that the bounties are believed to have resulted in the deaths of several U.S. service members in Afghanistan, citing intelligence gleaned from interrogations of captured militants.
The White House statement denying Trump had been briefed on the bounties was issued Saturday evening, shortly after Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden slammed Trump for his alleged inaction, which was first detailed in a New York Times report on Friday.
"While the White House does not routinely comment on alleged intelligence or internal deliberations, the CIA director, national security adviser, and the chief of staff can all confirm that neither the president nor the vice president were briefed on the alleged Russian bounty intelligence," White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement.
McEnany said she wasn't commenting on the "merit of the alleged intelligence" on Russia's moves, major elements of which were also reported by the Washington Post.
Russian military intelligence units offered the bounties to Afghan militants to kill U.S. and U.K. troops, according to the New York Times, which said that Trump had been briefed and the administration had spent months considering a response but had made no final decisions.
Biden pounced on the topic during an Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote virtual town hall meeting.
"Donald Trump has continued his embarrassing campaign of deference and debasing himself before Vladimir Putin," the former vice president said on Saturday. "He had has this information, according to the [New York] Times, and yet he offered to host Putin in the United States and sought to invite Russia to rejoin the G7."
Biden, Trump's rival in the November election, also went after Russia's leader, saying "there is no bottom to the depth of Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin's depravity."
If the Times report is accurate, Trump's reaction amounts to "worse than nothing," Biden added. Trump has sought friendly relations with Putin, who made efforts to boost him in the 2016 election.
"His entire presidency has been a gift to Putin, but this is beyond the pale," Biden said. "It's a betrayal of the most sacred duty we bear as a nation — protect and equip our troops when we go into harm's way."
The "betrayal" applies to military families as well, said Biden, invoking his own experience as a father who sent his son Beau to Iraq a decade ago. "I'm disgusted on behalf of those families whose loved ones are serving today."
If he's elected, Biden said, "Vladimir Putin will be confronted and we'll impose serious costs on Russia."
Democratic lawmakers also criticized Trump about the report. "They put bounties on the heads of American soldiers and Trump thought the 'ask them to stop' option presented by his advisers was too harsh," said Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut.