Donald Trump has said intelligence about a Russian plot to offer bounties to Taliban militants in exchange for fatal attacks on coalition troops in Afghanistan was not “credible” and was therefore not reported to him.
The US president gave the explanation in a tweet on Sunday night, and dismissed the widely reported allegations as “possibly another fabricated Russia hoax”.
Trump has come under pressure to explain why he had not heard about the Russia offer even though US security officials have been weighing a response to the plot since at least March.
Top administration officials, including members of Trump’s national security council, have been discussing the Russian bounty offer for months, the New York Times first reported.
Earlier on Sunday, Trump claimed never to have heard about the Russian offer – and he questioned whether such an offer had been made.
“Nobody briefed or told me, [vice president Mike] Pence, or chief of staff Mark Meadows about the so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians,” Trump tweeted in part. “Everybody is denying it & there have not been many attacks on us …”
Meadows took over as chief of staff at the end of March, after the national security council, which includes top advisers to the president with offices inside the White House, convened an interagency meeting to discuss taking action on the intelligence reports, according to the Times.
Joe Biden, Trump’s presidential rival, accused Trump in a virtual town hall on Saturday of betraying US troops by failing to act on the intelligence reports.
“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.
“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.”
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden slammed President Trump after the New York Times reported that U.S. intelligence concluded that the Russian military offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants in Afghanistan to kill American troops https://t.co/izhdSre2Le pic.twitter.com/C4w9YgQGJ1— Reuters (@Reuters) June 28, 2020
A Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered cash to Taliban-linked militants for successful attacks on coalition forces in the fall of 2019, as the US and Taliban engaged in talks to end a decades-long war, according to widely reported US intelligence assessments.
While Trump and aides cast doubt on those assessments, further reporting published on Sunday by the Times revealed that US intelligence agencies were tipped off to the Russian program by the discovery by US special forces of a large amount of American cash at a Taliban outpost.
Warnings about the suspected Russian plot were sent up the intelligence chain in January, the Times reported.
Twenty Americans were killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2019.
But the White House press secretary, the director of national intelligence (DNI), and now the president himself all denied at the weekend that news of a secret Russian paid assassinations plot against US troops ever made it to Trump’s inner circle.
“I have confirmed that neither the president nor the vice president were ever briefed on any intelligence alleged by the New York Times in its reporting yesterday,” intelligence director John Ratcliffe said in a statement Saturday. “The White House statement addressing this issue earlier today, which denied such a briefing occurred, was accurate.”
House speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, said on ABC’s This Week program on Sunday that it was “totally outrageous” that Trump did not act on the intelligence reports to defend American lives.
“This is as bad as it gets, and yet the president will not confront the Russians on this score,” Pelosi said.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany issued a statement Saturday denying that Trump had been briefed but saying “this does not speak to the merit of the alleged intelligence”.
“Either the DNI is lying (which is a massive problem) or the DNI withheld earthshaking information from President Trump because he is so infantile and irrelevant that they’d rather he not know (which is … well … also a massive problem),” tweeted Connecticut senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat.
The former acting director of national intelligence, Richard Grenell, who served the Trump administration, suggested on Sunday that the reports about the intelligence assessment were wrong. “No one would be fine with this if it were true,” Grenell tweeted.
Both the Russian foreign ministry and the Taliban issued statements denying the plot.
“This unsophisticated plant clearly illustrates the low intellectual abilities of the propagandists of American intelligence, who instead of inventing something more plausible have to make up this nonsense,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
A Taliban spokesman said the militants “strongly reject this allegation and are not indebted to the beneficence of any intelligence organ or foreign country”.
Trump has publicly undermined US intelligence assessments about Russia in the past. In a July 2018 appearance in Helsinki, Finland, alongside Russian president Vladimir Putin, Trump endorsed Putin’s denial of US findings that Russia had tampered in the 2016 presidential election.
“They said they think it’s Russia; I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia,” Trump told reporters. “I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be. I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
A report by special counsel Robert Mueller delivered in March 2019 documented extensive contacts between Russian intelligence and Trump campaign officials but “did not establish that the Trump Campaign coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities”.
The report documented 10 instances of potential obstruction of justice by Trump personally in investigations directly or indirectly involving his campaign’s Russia ties.