On Russian bounties, what did Trump know and when did he know it?

When a president and his own White House struggle to get their stories straight, it's generally a bad sign.
Image: FINLAND-US-RUSSIA-POLITICS-DIPLOMACY-SUMMIT
Russia's President Vladimir Putin listens while President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference at Finland's Presidential Palace on July 16, 2018 in Helsinki, Finland.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images file
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By Steve Benen

It was late Friday when the New York Times first 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."

Soon after, most of the nation's leading news agencies confirmed the story: U.S. intelligence agencies have reason to believe Vladimir Putin's government offered financial rewards to those who killed American servicemen and women.

Among the many questions is when, exactly, Donald Trump learned of the allegations. The initial reporting indicated that the information reached the Oval Office three months ago. In an overnight report, the NYT updated the timeline: despite White House efforts to say the American president was clueless, administration officials indicated that Trump was presented with the information in writing in February.

[Two officials told the Times] that the intelligence was included months ago in Mr. Trump's President's Daily Brief document -- a compilation of the government's latest secrets and best insights about foreign policy and national security that is prepared for him to read. One of the officials said the item appeared in Mr. Trump's brief in late February; the other cited Feb. 27, specifically. Moreover, a description of the intelligence assessment that the Russian unit had carried out the bounties plot was also seen as serious and solid enough to disseminate more broadly across the intelligence community in a May 4 article in the C.I.A.'s World Intelligence Review, a classified compendium commonly referred to as The Wire, two officials said.

It's not exactly a secret that Trump does not read the President's Daily Brief.

What's more, the Associated Press reported that the revelations reached the West Wing even earlier.

Top officials in the White House were aware in early 2019 of classified intelligence indicating Russia was secretly offering bounties to the Taliban for the deaths of Americans, a full year earlier than has been previously reported, according to U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the intelligence. The assessment was included in at least one of President Donald Trump's written daily intelligence briefings at the time, according to the officials. Then-national security adviser John Bolton also told colleagues he briefed Trump on the intelligence assessment in March 2019.

This is not the sort of controversy that quietly fades away. U.S. intelligence agencies came to believe that Moscow was paying for the murder of American troops; that information was brought directly to the Oval Office; and confronted with the information, Trump apparently did nothing.

Well, perhaps "nothing" is misleading: Trump actually started doing favors for the Kremlin, including endorsing Russia's re-entry into the G-7 and vowing to remove U.S. troops from Germany.

From the White House's perspective, the best-case scenario is that the American president was presented with this explosive intelligence and simply failed to read any of the relevant information, sticking his head in the sand as his own country's troops came under fire. The worst-case scenario is that Trump learned of the allegations, remained chummy with Putin, and started advancing Moscow's agenda anyway.

Making matters just a bit worse, the White House's explanation for what the president knew is, at least for now, largely incoherent.

On Sunday night, Trump published a tweet suggesting he'd received an intelligence briefing on the controversy. On Monday afternoon, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany insisted the president had not, in fact, received any briefing on the matter. 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."

It's generally a bad sign when a president and his own White House struggle to get their stories straight.

For that matter, the latest reporting suggesting that the allegations were included in the President's Daily Brief (PDB) obviously contradict the press secretary's argument yesterday that Trump "was not briefed on this."

If that weren't strange enough, McEnany went on to say the president, as of yesterday afternoon, still hadn't been briefed on this -- despite Trump's tweet to the contrary, and despite the fact that some members of Congress were receiving an intelligence briefing on the matter at roughly that time. British officials were also reportedly informed about the allegations last week.

Or put another way, the Trump administration learned of important intelligence, shared it with allies, presented it to members of Congress, circulated it among intelligence agencies, but according to the White House, the president was kept in the dark -- despite multiple reports that Trump was handed the information as far back as last year.

If the West Wing thinks this is going to work as a compelling explanation, it's mistaken.