President Donald Trump on Sunday denied being briefed about Russia offering bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan last year.
The report by The New York Times sparked renewed questions about Trump’s reluctance to confront Russia over behavior that, if accurate, would represent a serious national security challenge.
In a pair of early-morning tweets, Trump angrily slammed the report as “probably just another phony Times hit job, just like their failed Russia Hoax.”
“Nobody briefed or told me, @VP Pence, or Chief of Staff @MarkMeadows about the so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians, as reported through an anonymous source´ by the Fake News @nytimes,” he wrote.
“Everybody is denying it & there have not been many attacks on us….”
“Nobody’s been tougher on Russia than the Trump Administration.”
Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me or @VP. Possibly another fabricated Russia Hoax, maybe by the Fake News @nytimesbooks, wanting to make Republicans look bad!!! https://t.co/cowOmP7T1S
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 29, 2020
The Times, citing anonymous officials, said Trump was briefed on the US intelligence findings in March, but has not decided how to respond.
According to the report, US intelligence had concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit offered rewards to Taliban-linked militants to kill troops of the US-led coalition in Afghanistan.
The rewards were purportedly incentives to target US forces as Trump tries to withdraw troops from the conflict-torn country — one of the militants’ key demands — and end America´s longest war.
While Trump cast aspersions on the Times report, neither he nor other top administration officials denied the underlying intelligence conclusion about the Russian activities.
John Ratcliffe, the new director of national intelligence, issued a statement late Saturday denying Trump or Pence had been briefed “on any intelligence alleged by The New York Times in its reporting.”
He also vouched for an earlier White House statement that denied Trump had been briefed on the matter but left open the possibility that the intelligence existed.
“This does not speak to the merit of the alleged intelligence but to the inaccuracy of The New York Times story erroneously suggesting that President Trump was briefed on this matter,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said.
‘Another day at the office’
John Bolton, Trump’s former national security advisor and now peddling a highly critical tell-all book, said if it’s true Russia was paying to have US troops killed, “that is a very, very serious matter.”
Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Bolton said, “To me it looks like just another day at the office in the Trump White House.”
Top Democratic lawmaker Nancy Pelosi accused Trump of seeking to “ignore any allegation against Russia.”
“This is totally outrageous. You would think that the minute the president heard of it he would want to know more instead of denying that he knew anything,” she said on ABCs “This Week.”
Taliban, Russian denials
The Taliban have denied the report, reiterating that they were committed to an accord signed with Washington in February that paves the way for withdrawing all foreign forces from Afghanistan by next year.
The militants also said homemade explosives account for most fatalities among US forces.
“The 19-year jihad is not indebted to the beneficence of any intelligence organ or foreign country,” the Taliban said in a statement issued in Kabul.
Russia also denounced the report, with its embassy in Washington tweeting that the “baseless and anonymous accusations” in the Times story had “already led to direct threats to the life of employees” at its embassies in Washington and London.
Russia has a tortured history in Afghanistan, where the former Soviet Union in its final years was bogged down in a devastating fight against guerrillas.
The Times said there were different theories on why Russia would support Taliban attacks, including a desire to keep Washington bogged down in war.
It said Russia may also be seeking revenge over the US killing of Russian mercenaries in Syria, where Moscow backs President Bashar al-Assad.
According to the newspaper, the Taliban operation was led by Unit 29155, an arm of Russia’s military intelligence agency GRU, which has been blamed in numerous international incidents including a 2018 chemical weapons attack in Britain that nearly killed Russian-born double agent Sergei Skripal.
Some Republicans called for clarity from the White House over the allegations, with Representative Liz Cheney asking on Twitter “Who did know and when?… What has been done in response to protect our forces & hold Putin accountable?”