On Russia-bounty scandal, Trump is contradicted by his own team

When it comes to the Russia-bounty scandal, Trump's message bears little resemblance to the line taken by his own team.
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The White House is seen under dark rain clouds in Washington, DC, on June 1, 2015. The national weather forecast calls for severe weather for much of the US, including heavy rain from Washington, DC to Boston.ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP/Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

It was late last week 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."

It wasn't long before it became clear that the White House wasn't at all sure what to say about this. As we discussed yesterday, Donald Trump suggested he'd received an intelligence briefing on the controversy, but White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the opposite. What's more, while Trump said the allegations were deemed not credible by U.S. intelligence, McEnany told reporters that the information was still being "evaluated."

The confusion is apparently ongoing. This morning, the president returned to Twitter to offer a new condemnation of the entire controversy.

"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. If the discredited [New York Times] has a source, reveal it. Just another HOAX!"

About an hour later, he added that "this is all a made up Fake News Media Hoax started to slander me [and] the Republican Party."

These missives, to be sure, probably made Trump feel better. They also aligned the Oval Office's message with the Kremlin's line on the scandal.

But it's not what the president's team is saying about the same story.

Soon after Trump dismissed the matter as "fake" and a "hoax," White House National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien told a national television audience that administration prepared "options" to respond to Russia's efforts in response to the U.S. intelligence -- just as the original NYT report said.

If the scandal was "made up" to hurt Republicans, why did national security officials bother to prepare possible U.S. responses?

Similarly, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said this week, "There was intelligence reported on the allegation that the Russians were offering a bounty to the Taliban to kill Americans," though there were dissenting views within the intelligence community. British officials were reportedly told the same thing.

But again, if there "was intelligence" on this from U.S. officials, then it necessarily means the controversy isn't "fake" and wasn't "made up" by journalists as part of some partisan conspiracy.

As the Washington Post's Aaron Blake added this morning, Kayleigh McEnany told reporters yesterday that the White House is "still investigating" the allegations. But if the entire scandal is a "hoax" cooked up to hurt the GOP, why bother with an investigation?

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this morning told reporters, "The fact that the Russians are engaged in Afghanistan in a way that's adverse to the United States is nothing new." The Kansas Republican added, "We took this seriously, we handled it appropriately."

And while I certainly hope it's true that the administration took the matter seriously and handled it appropriately, Pompeo's line appears to be at odds with Trump's message that there was nothing to take seriously or handle appropriately.

As the controversy grows more serious, we'll apparently have to wait for the right hand at the White House to know what the even-further-to-the-right hand is doing.