President Trump faces a new setback to his reelection campaign in the form of reports that he failed to act in response to Russia paying bounties to Afghan militants for killing American troops.
Stalwart backers of the president, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., have raised questions about how the matter was handled, and at least two groups opposing Trump, including one representing military veterans, cut and released ads savaging him over the issue.
According to a Friday New York Times report later corroborated by the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, a Russian spy program in Afghanistan was offering bounties to Taliban-aligned militants to target coalition troops, including American soldiers. The Times reported that Trump was briefed on it in late March. The Post reported Sunday evening that intelligence sources had connected an unknown number of U.S. casualties to the program, based on interviews with captured militants.
The Associated Press also reported that Trump was briefed on the bounty system earlier this year. The president, however, has denied it, saying that neither he, Vice President Mike Pence nor chief of staff Mark Meadows had been told about the program. Richard Grenell, who served as acting director of national intelligence until last month, said, “I never heard this.” Russia and the Taliban have both denied the accuracy of the story.
In recent months Trump has urged the readmission of Russia to the G-7 group of major economic powers, a leading goal of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The organization expelled Russia over its invasion and occupation of part of Ukraine in 2014.
Trump wrote Sunday night that “Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me or [Pence]. Possibly another fabricated Russia Hoax, maybe by the Fake News [New York Times], wanting to make Republicans look bad!!!”
The Washington Post reported in 2017 that Russia-related material was sometimes not verbally addressed in the daily briefing to avoid angering the president, who has been friendly toward Putin and does not acknowledge Russia’s role in helping his 2016 campaign.
CIA Director Gina Haspel and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper have yet to weigh in on the issue.
Trump was responding to a tweet by Graham, who said earlier Sunday, “Imperative Congress get to the bottom of recent media reports that Russian GRU units in Afghanistan have offered to pay the Taliban to kill American soldiers with the goal of pushing America out of the region.”
“If reporting about Russian bounties on US forces is true, the White House must explain: 1. Why weren’t the president or vice president briefed? Was the info in the PDB [President’s Daily Brief]? 2. Who did know and when? 3. What has been done in response to protect our forces & hold Putin accountable?” asked Cheney.
CNN reported Monday morning that the White House was planning a congressional briefing on the bounty reports but didn’t offer details about where or who is invited.
Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden was critical of Trump on the issue over the weekend.
“Not only has he failed to sanction or impose any kind of consequences on Russia for this egregious violation of international law, Donald Trump has continued his embarrassing campaign of deference and debasing himself before Vladimir Putin,” Biden said Saturday during a virtual town hall event, adding, “His entire presidency has been a gift to Putin, but this is beyond the pale. 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.”
The controversy comes amid the continuing coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 125,000 Americans, and consistent national polling that shows Trump currently trailing Biden nationally and in swing states ahead of November’s election.
VoteVets, a Democratically aligned armed force veterans’ group, released a 30-second video ad on Twitter charging that Trump had betrayed the troops.
“If you’re going to act like a traitor, you don’t get to thank us for our service,” concludes the ad, which calls Putin Trump’s “Russian master.” The ad had more than 2.5 million views as of Monday morning.
The Lincoln Project, a group of anti-Trump Republicans, released its own ad on Saturday evening.
“Putin pays the Taliban cash to slaughter our men and women in uniform, and Trump is silent, weak, controlled,” states the ad, which has had more than 11 million views, concluding, “When Trump tells you he stands by the troops, he’s right — just not our troops.”
George Conway, a Lincoln Project founder and husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, began to target Pence on Twitter Monday, urging his followers to ask the vice president, “Were you or the president told orally, on paper, or electronically, about the Russians paying bounties for the killing of American soldiers? When did you first learn? Did anyone say the intel was bad?”
NBC News reported that Pence didn’t answer a question about the bounties on Sunday.
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