It's been a little over a month since 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, 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.
Donald Trump scrambled to dismiss the story, insisting that the controversy was "made up" by journalists as part of an elaborate conspiracy to "damage" his re-election campaign and his party. The president concluded that the entire matter is "just another hoax." Top Pentagon leaders soon after conceded, however, that there were, in fact, intelligence reports on the alleged bounties.
Yesterday, during a Q&A with reporters, Trump was asked about the controversy: "You did talk with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and I wanted to ask if you did bring up the reports of Russia having bounties on our soldiers in Afghanistan." The Republican replied:
"We don't talk about what we discussed, but we had plenty of discussion. And I think it was very productive."
At that point, Trump, who generally offers long and meandering answers, quickly moved on to the next question.
The trouble, of course, is that the president's response was woefully incomplete. It may be true that Trump and his benefactor in Moscow "don't talk about" what they discussed, but that's a deliberate choice. In the United States, it's a common, bipartisan practice for the White House to release summaries known as "readouts" after an American president has a meeting with a foreign counterpart. The point of the documents is to offer an overview of what the two leaders discussed.
Why is it, exactly, that Trump -- a man who's hilariously described himself as "the most transparent" president in American history -- believes his chats with Putin must be treated differently?
What's more, let's not overlook the fact that Trump's Putin meetings have been quite frequent in recent months. It was earlier this year when U.S. intelligence raised the specter of Russian bounties, and the American president has spoken to his counterpart in Moscow at least seven times since March.
Did Trump broach the subject of bounties during any of these phone meetings? The Republican apparently doesn't want to talk about it.
Indeed, other than briefly peddling a conspiracy theory his own team helped discredit, the American president has had very little to say about the entire matter. The Washington Post reported earlier this month, "In the days since the reports became public, Trump has declined to criticize Putin or Russia, and senior administration officials say the White House isn’t planning a response.... For Trump’s critics, the silence on Putin is part of a disconcerting trend."
Alas, that trend continues.