If Pompeo talked to Russia about bounties, why didn't Trump?

A month ago, Trump described the Russia/bounty controversy as "made-up" and a "hoax." Can he explain why his own team disagreed?
Image: President Trump Holds A Cabinet Meeting At The White House
President Donald Trump, from right, talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a cabinet meeting at the White House on July 16, 2019.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file
By Steve Benen

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.

According to new reporting today from the New York Times, the matter was serious enough that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Russia's foreign minister.

Mr. Pompeo's warning is the first known rebuke from a senior American official to Russia over the bounties program.... The action indicates that Mr. Pompeo, who previously served as Mr. Trump's C.I.A. director, believes the intelligence warranted a stern message. Mr. Pompeo delivered the warning in a call on July 13 with the minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, choosing to do so during a conversation that, officially, was about an unrelated topic....

At first blush, Pompeo's reaction would seem like a normal response to abnormal circumstances. If the Times' reporting is accurate -- this hasn't been independently confirmed by MSNBC or NBC News -- the nation's chief diplomat found his own country's intelligence credible enough to issue a warning to his counterpart in Moscow.

That is what we'd expect the secretary of State to do.

But then there's his boss to consider. It was early last month when Donald Trump declared via Twitter, "The Russia Bounty story is just another made up by Fake News tale that is told only to damage me and the Republican Party. The secret source probably does not even exist, just like the story itself.... Just another HOAX!"

Soon after, the American president added that the bounty controversy is "all a made up Fake News Media Hoax started to slander me [and] the Republican Party."

Last week, Trump went on to concede he "never" broached the subject with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in part because the intelligence about the bounties -- intel he suggested last month didn't exist -- "never reached my desk."

Right off the bat, his explanation was difficult to take seriously, especially since the intelligence was reportedly included in the President's Daily Brief earlier this year.

But with each passing revelation, Trump's version of events looks a little worse. The idea that the entire controversy was "made up" by conspiring journalists was ridiculous before, and it's now discredited by members of his own team -- from Pompeo to White House National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien -- taking the intelligence seriously.

And the idea that Trump didn't need to broach the subject with his Russian benefactor is tougher to excuse given that his chief diplomat -- a loyal Trump ally -- felt the need to warn his counterpart in Moscow over the controversy the president pretended wasn't real.

The questions for Trump are simple: "What's the real reason you didn't bring this up with Putin?" and "Why does your own team disagree with your assessment about the controversy being "made up" and a "hoax"?