Trump mum on Rus­sia claim

Pres­i­dent says he was not briefed but doesn’t deny bounty re­port. Bi­par­ti­san furor grows.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Laura King

WASH­ING­TON — Pres­i­dent Trump, con­fronted with a dam­ag­ing re­port that Rus­sia of­fered bounties to Tal­iban-linked mil­i­tants to kill Amer­i­can and al­lied troops in Afghanista­n, de­clared Sun­day on Twit­ter that he was never briefed about the find­ing by U.S. in­tel­li­gence.

Democrats in­clud­ing Trump’s prospec­tive pres­i­den­tial ri­val, Joe Bi­den, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sharply crit­i­cized Trump’s seem­ing in­dif­fer­ence to the ex­plo­sive re­port in Fri­day’s New York Times.

Nei­ther Trump nor other ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have specif­i­cally de­nied the re­port, which has since been con­firmed by sev­eral other news or­ga­ni­za­tions.

On Sun­day, Repub­li­can Rep. Liz Cheney of Wy­oming joined in the crit­i­cism, say­ing that if the in­for­ma­tion was gen­uine, the White House needed to ex­plain why Trump was not told and why the ad­min­is­tra­tion has done noth­ing in re­sponse.

U.S. spy agen­cies con­cluded sev­eral months ago that a Rus­sian mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence unit had of­fered se­cret bounties for at­tacks on coali­tion troops, ac­cord­ing to the New York Times.

The mat­ter was dis­cussed in late March by the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, and Euro­pean al­lies in­clud­ing Bri­tain were made aware of the find­ings.

On Sun­day, the New York Times re­ported that the ini­tial word of the Rus­sian plan came as early as Jan­uary from mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials in Afghanista­n.

The re­ports hit the White House at an al­ready trou­bled junc­ture.

Mul­ti­ple na­tional polls show Bi­den out­pac­ing Trump, and the pres­i­dent and his team have strug­gled to craft a co­her­ent mes­sage amid a drum­beat of bad news: a surge in U.S. coro­n­avirus cases, now ex­ceed­ing 2.5 mil­lion; the eco­nomic car­nage re­sult­ing from the pan­demic; and the fall­out from mas­sive protests for racial jus­tice fol­low­ing the po­lice killing of Ge­orge Floyd in Min­neapo­lis.

For­mer New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who helped run Trump’s 2016 cam­paign, said Sun­day on ABC’s “This Week” that the pres­i­dent “will lose” his re­elec­tion bid “if he doesn’t change course, both in terms of the sub­stance of what he is dis­cussing and the way that he ap­proaches the Amer­i­can peo­ple.”

So far, the White House re­ac­tion to the story has not been to lay out a re­sponse to Rus­sia but to sim­ply in­sist that Trump had not been per­son­ally briefed.

The of­fice of Trump’s hand­picked di­rec­tor of na­tional in­tel­li­gence, John Rat­cliffe — who has been in his post for only a month and was a con­tro­ver­sial choice be­cause of his lack of rel­e­vant ex­pe­ri­ence and his avid par­ti­san­ship as a con­gress­man from Texas — re­leased a state­ment late Satur­day say­ing that nei­ther Trump nor Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence was “ever briefed on any in­tel­li­gence” de­scribed in the story.

But in­tel­li­gence ex­perts sug­gested that the White House’s de­fense ap­peared to be largely a se­man­tic one, per­haps rest­ing on the ma­te­rial be­ing in­cluded in the writ­ten daily in­tel­li­gence brief that the pres­i­dent is known to avoid read­ing, rather than pre­sented to him orally.

David Priess, a for­mer CIA an­a­lyst and in­tel­li­gence briefer, de­scribed sev­eral sce­nar­ios un­der which Trump and those around him could have been made aware of the as­sess­ment.

The strik­ing part, he said in a Twit­ter post­ing, was that the White House had not ad­dressed the sub­stance of the re­port, nor had it pub­licly ex­pressed de­ter­mi­na­tion to get to the bot­tom of it.

“Why hasn’t the com­man­der in chief re­sponded to such a grave de­vel­op­ment?” Priess asked.

Trump, who spent Sun­day at his Vir­ginia golf prop­erty, re­ferred in a pair of tweets to the “so-called at­tacks on our troops,” char­ac­ter­ized the re­port as “Fake News” and wrote that “nobody briefed me or told me.”

But while avoid­ing a di­rect de­nial of the re­port’s un­der­ly­ing as­ser­tions, the pres­i­dent seemed to sug­gest that the in­for­ma­tion might not trou­ble him much, even if it were true.

“There have not been many at­tacks on us,” he wrote.

At least nine U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanista­n this year, and 20 last year, out of nearly 2,400 Amer­i­can mil­i­tary fa­tal­i­ties in the course of the lengthy con­flict.

Bi­den hit Trump on the is­sue Satur­day, say­ing that if the re­port is true, Trump’s in­ac­tion rep­re­sents “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.”

The for­mer vice pres­i­dent de­scribed the episode as a con­tin­u­a­tion of Trump’s “em­bar­rass­ing cam­paign of def­er­ence and de­bas­ing him­self” be­fore Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin.

Bi­den, whose cam­paign is cen­tered on vir­tual ap­pear­ances be­cause of the COVID-19 pan­demic, made his re­marks at an on­line town hall.

Pelosi, in­ter­viewed Sun­day on “This Week,” said the Rus­sian bounty re­port re­vived long-stand­ing ques­tions about the pres­i­dent’s affin­ity for Putin, dat­ing to U.S. in­tel­li­gence find­ings that Moscow in­ter­fered on Trump’s be­half in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Trump has on many oc­ca­sions gone out of his way to pub­licly de­fer to the Rus­sian leader, and in re­cent weeks, he has pressed to re­store Rus­sia to the meet­ings of the Group of Seven lead­ing in­dus­trial na­tions, from which it was ex­cluded af­ter its in­va­sion of Crimea in 2014.

“This is as bad as it gets, and yet the pres­i­dent will not con­front the Rus­sians on this score,” Pelosi said of the bounty re­port, sug­gest­ing that the pres­i­dent might be be­hav­ing un­der some sort of duress.

“I don’t know what the Rus­sians have on the pres­i­dent — po­lit­i­cally, per­son­ally, fi­nan­cially or what­ever it is,” the San Fran­cisco Demo­crat said. “Now he is say­ing this is fake news — why would he say that? Why wouldn’t he say, ‘Let’s look into it and see what this is?’ ”

Cheney, writ­ing on Twit­ter, said the White House needed to dis­close “who did know and when?” and to de­tail “what has been done in re­sponse to pro­tect our forces & hold Putin ac­count­able.”

For­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vi­sor John Bolton, who was ousted from the White House in Septem­ber, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that Trump’s “fun­da­men­tal fo­cus” was not on na­tional se­cu­rity or pro­tect­ing Amer­i­can troops.

“So what is the pres­i­den­tial re­ac­tion?” asked Bolton, the au­thor of a scathing White House mem­oir. “It’s to say, ‘It’s not my re­spon­si­bil­ity. No one told me about it.’ ”

‘This is as bad as it gets, and yet the pres­i­dent will not con­front the Rus­sians on this score.’ — Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House

Sgt. Justin Upde­graff U.S. Ma­rine Corps

U.S. TROOPS like th­ese at Bost Air­field in Afghanista­n were al­legedly a tar­get of Rus­sia, which of­fered se­cret bounties to mil­i­tants for their killing, a re­port says.

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