This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
President Donald Trump said he never raised with Russian leader Vladimir Putin media reports that Moscow paid the Taliban to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
“I have never discussed it with him,” Trump said in an interview with the news website Axios published on July 28.
Trump has repeatedly said he was not briefed on the intelligence on the alleged Russian bounties before it was reported in the media in June because it was inconclusive. He has described the reports as “fake news.”
Russia has denied the reports.
Trump spoke on the phone with Putin on July 23, the eighth conversation the two leaders have had since the intelligence was reportedly included in the president’s written daily intelligence briefing in late February.
Asked why he did not bring up the issue in the July 23 phone call, Trump told Axios: “That was a phone call to discuss other things, and frankly that’s an issue that many people said was fake news.”
A readout from the call last week said the two leaders discussed the expiring New START nuclear agreement and combating the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump has made clear that he did not believe the bounty report, but that if it were true, he would respond to Russia.
“It never reached my desk. You know why? Because they didn’t think – intelligence — they didn’t think it was real,” Trump told Axios. “I wouldn’t mind — if it reached my desk, I would have done something about it.”
He denied media reports he doesn’t read the daily intelligence briefing.
“I read it a lot, you know, I read a lot. They like to say I don’t read. I read a lot,” he said.
There is no clear assessment within the U.S. intelligence community whether Russia paid bounties to the Taliban.
The New York Times reported at the end of June that U.S. intelligence officials concluded months ago that Russian military intelligence offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill American soldiers. The paper went on to claim that Trump was briefed on the matter, but did nothing in response.
The White House has said neither Trump nor Vice President Mike Pence had been briefed on the alleged intelligence. The House of Representatives held several hearings on the topic about how the United States should respond if the allegations are substantiated.
The issue has become a partisan topic ahead of November’s presidential election, when Trump will face the presumed Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Democrats have used the reports to question why Trump was not informed, and if he was, why there has been no response to Russia.
Biden’s campaign responded to Trump’s comments by saying that it was “absolutely despicable” the president did not confront Putin with intelligence on the alleged bounties.
“The most critical and sacred obligation of a commander-in-chief is to protect those who serve our nation in harm’s way,” the Biden campaign’s rapid response director, Andrew Bates, said in a statement.
“But months after the U.S. intelligence community sounded the alarm — to Donald Trump and to our allies — that Russia was placing bounties on the heads of American servicemen and women in a war zone, 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.