Trump mum on Russia claim
President says he was not briefed but doesn’t deny bounty report. Bipartisan furor grows.
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
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.