The problem with Trump's denial in the Russia bounty controversy

Was Trump briefed on reports that Russia had put bounties on the heads of American soldiers? His denial didn't help matters.
Image: Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin
President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin arrive to attend a joint press conference after a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018.Yuri Kadobnov / AFP - Getty Images file
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By Steve Benen

It was late Friday when the New York Times reported on a stunning story: according to U.S. intelligence, while peace talks were underway to end the long-running conflict in Afghanistan, a Russian military intelligence unit "offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan -- including targeting American troops."

From the article:

Islamist militants, or armed criminal elements closely associated with them, are believed to have collected some bounty money, the officials said.... The intelligence finding was briefed to President Trump, and the White House's National Security Council discussed the problem at an interagency meeting in late March, the officials said. Officials developed a menu of potential options -- starting with making a diplomatic complaint to Moscow and a demand that it stop, along with an escalating series of sanctions and other possible responses, but the White House has yet to authorize any step, the officials said.

Soon after, many of the nation's leading news organizations -- including NBC News, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and others -- largely confirmed the story in broad strokes, though there were some varying details.

Nevertheless, the allegations are extraordinary, as are the implications. If the reporting on U.S. intelligence is correct, Vladimir Putin's government offered financial rewards to those who killed American servicemen and women. The initial reporting indicated that the information reached the Oval Office in March.

It was at that point that "the menu of potential options" went ignored, and Trump proceeded to take steps to boost the Kremlin's agenda -- including endorsing Russia's re-entry into the G-7 and vowing to remove U.S. troops from Germany.

The result raised the prospect of an indefensible dynamic: was the American president doing favors for the Kremlin after learning that Russia had put bounties on the heads of American soldiers? Did Moscow's bounty program lead to the deaths of U.S. troops, as some reports have indicated?

On Saturday afternoon, a full day after the Times' report was first published online, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement, "While the White House does not routinely comment on alleged intelligence or internal deliberations, the C.I.A. director, national security adviser and the chief of staff can all confirm that neither the president nor the vice president were briefed on the alleged Russian bounty intelligence."

It was possible, of course, that the White House statement was a lie -- and given Team Trump's track record, it's not as if these folks have earned the benefit of the doubt. It's also possible that U.S. intelligence officials found it necessary -- and perhaps continue to find it necessary -- to keep sensitive information about Russia's bounty program from the untrustworthy American president who's a bit too aligned with his benefactor in Moscow.

But the reporting suggested the information reached "the highest levels of the White House." What's more, the NYT quoted one source yesterday saying the information "was included in the President's Daily Brief, a compendium of foreign policy and national security intelligence." (There's ample evidence that Trump does not read the President's Daily Brief.)

It's hard to know which of the various scenarios is the most ridiculous: (1) Trump was informed about the bounty scheme but did nothing; (2) Trump was kept in the dark by his own administration's intelligence officials; or (3) Trump was handed critically important national-security information, but he didn't bother to read it.

Nearly two days after the Times' report first reached the public, the president decided to tweet about the story, insisting that "nobody" briefed him, Vice President Mike Pence, or White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows "about the so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians." Trump added that "everybody is denying" the claims and "there have not been many attacks on us."

The denial -- to the extent that this can be called a denial -- is a mess for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that Trump was responding to a claim that no one had made: the reporting was about Russia offering bounties, not directly attacking U.S. troops in Afghanistan. It naturally raised the question of whether the president was confused about the story or whether he was altering the underlying claim deliberately. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) asked, "Did [Trump] intentionally misdescribe what Russia did in order to deny it?"

As for the idea that "everybody is denying" the accuracy of the reporting, Trump appears to be referring to the Kremlin and the Taliban -- as if he considers them reliable sources whose claims deserve to be accepted at face value.

And finally there is the president's assertion that the bounty controversy is dubious because "there have not been many attacks" on American troops in Afghanistan.

The word "many" is doing an awful lot of work in that sentence.

This is a story that has the potential to be a significant scandal, and a non-denial denial from the Oval Office will not put it to rest.

Postscript: The president published a follow-up tweet last night, arguing, "Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me or [Pence]." The Associated Press reported overnight, however, "The intelligence officials told the AP the president was briefed on the matter earlier this year."