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Trump Stirs New Alarm Over Russia by Dismissing Bounty Claims

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 6/30/2020 Justin Sink and Nick Wadhams
Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie sitting at a table: U.S. President Donald Trump listens during an American Workforce Policy Advisory Board meeting in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, June 26, 2020. The board, co-chaired by Ivanka Trump and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, is hosting their sixth meeting and are joined by members of the National Council for the American Worker. © Bloomberg U.S. President Donald Trump listens during an American Workforce Policy Advisory Board meeting in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, June 26, 2020. The board, co-chaired by Ivanka Trump and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, is hosting their sixth meeting and are joined by members of the National Council for the American Worker.

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump has publicly shrugged off allegations that Russia offered bounties to kill American troops in Afghanistan, reigniting concerns that he’s more interested in preserving ties with the Kremlin than defending U.S. interests.

Trump has yet to demand an investigation or threaten Russia with any consequences if the allegations are confirmed -- even as lawmakers from both parties demanded the administration hold Russia accountable if there is evidence that the bounty offers occurred.

Trump’s only public remark on the reports was a tweet that an intelligence official he didn’t name told him the bounty allegations weren’t credible -- even though White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters on Monday that there’s no consensus on their veracity.

Trump’s reluctance to confront Russia has spawned lingering fears among U.S. lawmakers and allies overseas that Trump prefers to remain willfully ignorant when it comes to allegations of President Vladimir Putin’s plotting against the U.S.

Republicans as well as Democrats demanded the administration provide additional details. GOP lawmakers went to the White House for briefings on Monday while House Democrats received a separate briefing Tuesday.

There is “certainly” evidence of Russian involvement in Afghanistan with regard to placing bounties on U.S. troops, House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith said Tuesday after returning from the White House.

Earlier: Trump’s Intelligence Director Vows to Investigate Bounty Reports

The latest Russia episode is becoming a growing political crisis for a president who is trailing his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, in polls and struggling to defend his handling of the resurgent coronavirus outbreak at the same time as nationwide protests against police brutality and racism continue.

On Monday night, the director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, vowed to investigate the allegations and brief lawmakers and the president about his conclusions.

But Ratliffe, a former Republican congressman who was confirmed in May, devoted much of his statement to a rebuke of the person or persons behind the allegations.

“The selective leaking of any classified information disrupts the vital interagency work to collect, assess, and mitigate threats and places our forces at risk. It is also, simply put, a crime,” he said.

CIA Director Gina Haspel, echoed his criticism in her own statement: “Leaks compromise and disrupt the critical interagency work to collect, assess, and ascribe culpability.”

Separately, the Associated Press reported that White House officials were aware in early 2019 about intelligence suggesting Russia was offering bounties -- a year earlier than was previously reported. The AP, which cited U.S. officials with direct knowledge, said the information was included in Trump’s daily intelligence briefing, a written report, at the time

A New York Times report, citing two unnamed officials, said an account of the Russian bounties was included in the President’s Daily Brief in late February 2020.

Read More: Russia Blasts Reports of Bounties on U.S. Troops in Afghanistan

Trump’s response to the reports highlights his complicated and often adversarial relationship with the U.S. intelligence community. In 2018, he stood next to Putin in Helsinki and publicly challenged his own agencies’ conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. Trump also repeatedly rejected Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference as a “witch hunt.”

The latest intelligence -- which suggests Russia offered Taliban-linked militants money to kill coalition forces in Afghanistan, and that has been circulating within the Washington intelligence community for months -- risked once again isolating Trump from U.S. allies who demanded information on the alleged plot.

Trump on Twitter dismissed New York Times reports about the intelligence as “possibly another fabricated Russia Hoax” after a top ally, Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said it was imperative to “get to the bottom” of the allegations.

‘Not Verified’

White House aides said Monday that the president had not been fully read in on the allegations because of a lack of consensus among some U.S. intelligence agencies, who had not verified reports of the bounty program or that the rewards had been linked to U.S. troop deaths.

A Defense Department spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman, said Monday night that the department “has no corroborating evidence to validate the recent allegations.”

The administration declined to elaborate on why officials doubted the reports. It also didn’t explain why the president -- in an apparent break from past practices -- was only receiving intelligence after it had been fully verified, even when the ramifications were so significant.

“Intelligence is verified before it reaches the president of the United States and in this case it was not verified,” McEnany told reporters.

Trump seemed eager for the story to go away. In recent days, he’s made no public appearances and has used Twitter mostly to complain about statues being defaced by those protesting racism, endorse Republican candidates and litigate his frustration with polls.

A Trump ally familiar with the underlying intelligence characterized it as extremely tenuous and not solid enough to brief the commander-in-chief.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told NBC News the allegations were “really ridiculous.”

‘We Need Answers’

Representative Jim Banks, an Indiana Republican among those briefed by the White House, said that it was “likely we’ll never know the truth” and accused his colleagues and the media of rushing “to judgment before learning the whole story.”

Yet concern over the allegations was bipartisan and growing. Senator Todd Young, another Indiana Republican, said in a letter to the president that if the reports were confirmed, they deserved a “strong and immediate response from our government” including the imposition of sanctions directly on Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that he would work with the president “on a strong response” if the reports proved true.

“My No. 1 priority is the safety of our troops,” Inhofe said. “Right now, though, we need answers.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Monday night that she had spoken to Haspel and Ratcliffe and “my call to each of them was to follow up on my formal request for a full House briefing on the intelligence surrounding Russian bounties.”

Earlier: U.S., Afghan Taliban Ink Peace Deal to Wind Down 18-Year War

Trump has come under repeated criticism for dismissing intelligence findings, and his lack of interest in written reports. Trump aides -- including former National Security Advisor John Bolton and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson -- have said he can frequently have a short attention span and isn’t inclined to read lengthy material on any subject, particularly if it challenges his views or instincts.

Trump has also slow-walked congressional sanctions on Russian officials, sidestepped comment on the 2018 poisoning of a Russian double agent in the U.K., and invited Putin to participate in the G-7 summit after Russia’s removal from the gathering over its annexation of Crimea.

“His entire presidency has been a gift to Putin, but this is beyond the pale,” Biden said Saturday at a virtual town hall. “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.”

Trump’s apparent lack of interest in Russia’s actions also threatens to deepen his isolation on the world stage, where other leaders have in recent weeks expressed dismay over his willingness to reincorporate Putin into summits like the G-7.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson -- among the world leaders with the closest relationship to Trump -- has threatened to veto Russia’s re-admittance to the group, while Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the country’s “continued disrespect” for international norms should prohibit its return.

Trump’s announcement earlier this month that he was withdrawing tens of thousands of troops from Germany was seen in Berlin as a strike at Chancellor Angela Merkel as her nation looks to get tougher on Moscow after a 2015 cyberattack on the Budestag and the contract killing of a Chechen man in a German park.

Poll Disapproval Rising

The bounty reports surfaced at a particularly vulnerable time for Trump, with just 41% of Americans approving of his job performance in a recent NPR News/PBS poll of registered voters.

Some 72% of Americans surveyed by CBS News and YouGov said the Trump administration was unprepared to deal with the coronavirus outbreak as it was starting, and Democrats have repeatedly criticized Trump for pushing to quickly reopen businesses while championing untested potential cures.

The Washington Post reported in 2017 that former intelligence officials said Trump’s briefers would occasionally put Russian-related intelligence in the president’s written intelligence briefing -- but not raise the issue orally -- to avoid presidential ire that could derail a meeting.

McEnany could not say Monday whether the bounty intelligence had been included in written material provided the president.

(Updates with Adam Smith quote starting in sixth paragraph and AP report that White House was alerted to bounty intelligence last year in 12th paragraph.)

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Video: Frank Figliuzzi on Russia bounty plot: Putin has gotten ‘zero pushback’ from Trump (MSNBC)

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