It's been a little over a month since the New York Times first reported on U.S. intelligence pointing to Russia allegedly offering "bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan -- including targeting American troops."
Soon after, as regular readers know, many of the nation's leading news agencies confirmed key elements of the story: U.S. intelligence agencies had reason to believe Vladimir Putin's government offered financial rewards to those who killed American servicemen and women.
Asked earlier this week whether he'd ever spoken with his Russian counterpart about the matter, Trump evaded, responding, "We don't talk about what we discussed." A day later, however, the Republican was more forthcoming with “Axios on HBO.”
In Tuesday’s interview, he was definitive: “I have never discussed it with [Putin].” Pressed on why he didn’t raise the matter in Thursday’s call, [Trump] said: “That was a phone call to discuss other things, and frankly that’s an issue that many people said was fake news.”
In the interview with Axios’s Jonathan Swan, the president added that the bounty intelligence "never reached my desk."
Right off the bat, there are some obvious problems with Trump's position. He dismissed the controversy as "fake news," despite the fact that top Pentagon leaders have conceded that there were, in fact, intelligence reports on the alleged bounties.
What's more, while he insisted that the matter didn't reach his desk, the intelligence was reportedly included in the President's Daily Brief as far back as February -- and when Swan specifically asked if he reads his daily intelligence briefing, Trump replied, "I do."
That's almost certainly not true, but at face value, it suggests the bounty matter did reach the president's desk, his claims to the contrary notwithstanding.
In the same interview, Swan reminded Trump that retired Gen. John Nicholson, the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said Russia has supplied weapons to the Taliban. Trump, seemingly eager to excuse the Kremlin's policy, responded, “Well, we supplied weapons when they were fighting Russia, too. You know, when they were fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan."
Reminded that this happened in an entirely different era -- Trump was pointing to U.S. policy during the Cold War -- the president added, "I'm just saying, we did that, too."
The implication wasn't subtle: the American president seems ready to excuse Russia extending military support to the Taliban -- during the ongoing conflict -- because of the Reagan-era policy.
Trump proceeded to question whether Moscow is actually supporting the Taliban, adding once again, "It's never reached my desk.... Russia doesn't want anything to do with Afghanistan."
If Vladimir Putin had literally scripted Trump's answers to these questions, would they have been any different?