WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump says he did not talk to Russia counterpart Vladimir Putin about reports the Russians paid bounties to Taliban rebels for killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
“I have never discussed it with him," Trump said in a soon-to-be-aired interview with "Axios on HBO," the Axios news website reported Wednesday.
Asked about the interview, Trump told reporters at the White House he would be "very angry" if evidence emerges that the Russians paid bounties for the deaths of U.S. soldiers. "I would respond appropriately," Trump said as he left on a trip to Texas for campaign fundraising and a visit to an oil rig.
While some have said Trump is afraid to confront Putin over the allegations because he is so friendly with the Russian leader, Trump said his intelligence agencies have not been definitive over claims the Russians offered bounties for the deaths of American troops.
Trump and Putin spoke just last Thursday, but Trump told Axios "that was a phone call to discuss other things" rather than bounties, "and frankly that’s an issue that many people said was fake news.”
Trump's relationship with Putin is a frequent issue as the president pursues re-election .
Democratic opponent Joe Biden and others say Trump is too chummy with the Russian autocrat, and has refused to confront him on matters ranging from Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election to the allegations over bounties.
Citing reports that Russian bounties were mentioned in the Presidential Daily Brief as early as February, Biden said this month that "the idea that somehow he didn't know or isn't being briefed – it is a dereliction of duty if that's the case. And if he was briefed and nothing was done about this, that's a dereliction of duty."
After the Axios interview, Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said Trump continues to ignore the issue "months after the U.S. intelligence community sounded the alarm" about Russian bounties. "Our president continues to turn his back on those who put their lives on the line for our country, and on his own duty," Bates said.
The New York Times reported in early July that intelligence officials believe that "a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan – including targeting American troops – amid the peace talks to end the long-running war there."
Russia denied the allegations.
Congressional committees are looking into the claims about Russia bounties, but have not provided much evidence.
Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee this month that the government lacks proof of Russian bounties, but is still investigating.
"We’re not done,” Milley said. “We’re going to run this thing to ground.”
A group of Senate Democrats sent Trump a letter demanding information about the bounty claims, telling the president: "There can be no higher national security priority than the protection of our Armed Forces abroad, and the people’s representatives in Congress need to know what is going on here."
Ned Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council during the Barack Obama administration, said there is plenty of credible evidence behind the bounty allegation. Price said the president fakes "concern for those who put their country first each and every day," while he "prioritizes his own personal and political interests above all else."
Trump administration officials said the intelligence community believes Russia has been providing assistance to Taliban rebels in Afghanistan, but there is no proof they have paid bounties for attacks on soldiers.
Trump has echoed that position in public statements, though he has also professed ignorance of Russian activity in Afghanistan.
Gen. John Nicholson, then the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said in 2018 that "we know" Russia is providing money and arms to the Taliban.
Asked about those claims, Trump told "Axios on HBO" he was unaware of Nicholson's comments and that evidence of Russian assistance to the Taliban "never reached my desk."
The "Axios on HBO" interview is scheduled to air Monday at 11 p.m. EST.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump says he did not ask Vladimir Putin about bounties on US troops