Following reports last weekend that Russia was offering Taliban combatants a bounty for killing American troops and their allies, United States President Donald Trump denied knowing about the scheme. A day later, Trump stated that the intel on the bounties was unreliable. Russia also denied the validity of the reports, despite multiple news reports and the verification of intelligence agencies.
Trump’s critics have frequently said that the president is too quick to accept Russia’s version of events. His apparent deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin has been considered evidence by some that Trump conspired with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election. Trump has dismissed all such accusations as a “Russia hoax,” claiming that he is tougher on Russia than other presidents.
Trump denies the Russia bounty story
On June 26, The New York Times published an explosive report that alleged Russian military officials had authorized paying money to Taliban militants for the killing of US troops and allies in Afghanistan. Reporting by other sources, including The Wall Street Journal, supported the Times’ reporting, finding that US intelligence officials had known about the alleged bounty for months.
The reports led to strong criticism of Trump and his administration, who, in the months since purportedly learning of the bounty, have publicly championed a closer relationship with Russia.
That includes Trump advocating that Russia be readmitted into the Group of Seven, or G-7 (formerly the G-8). The group of international powers expelled Russia in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea and refused to readmit the country this spring.
On June 28, Trump denied that he, Vice President Mike Pence or Chief of Staff Mark Meadows were briefed on the bounty intel, saying instead that the story was reported by the “fake news” New York Times.
The next day, Trump tweeted, “Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me or @VP.” The tweet goes on to say that the story is “Possibly another fabricated Russia Hoax,” returning to a theme that the president has used since the beginning of his presidency.
National security adviser Robert O’Brien backed up Trump’s assertion, saying in a statement, “Because the allegations in recent press articles have not been verified or substantiated by the Intelligence Community, President Trump had not been briefed on the items.”
The Trump administration’s denial of the intelligence reports aligned with denials out of Russia.
The Russian Embassy in Washington, DC tweeted on June 26 that The New York Times was inventing “new fake stories.” The state-funded news agency, RT, reported that the Russian Ministry also denied the story, calling it an “unsophisticated plant” from “propagandists” in US intelligence.
Following Trump and Russia’s denials, a new report from AP News found that the White House had known about the bounty reports from US intelligence since early 2019.
The report says that Trump was briefed on the intelligence assessment in March 2019 by then-national security adviser John Bolton. The reports were also included in Trump’s daily written intelligence report.
Is Trump “a puppet” of Putin?
Accusations that Trump has colluded with Russia or is beholden to Putin have dogged him since before he won the presidency. Reporting during the 2016 election focused on the Trump Organization’s reliance on money from Russian sources and Trump’s unusually effusive praise of the dictatorial leader.
Trump was also criticized for not accepting the US intelligence agencies’ assessment that Russia had hacked the Democratic National Committee, claiming it could have been anyone else, even “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”
During an October 2016 debate, Trump’s opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, called Trump “a puppet” of Putin, to which Trump replied, “No puppet, no puppet. You’re the puppet.” Clinton went on to say that Putin “has a very clear favorite in this race,” meaning Trump.
During Trump’s presidency, his alleged ties to Putin led to an FBI investigation and an investigation conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller to determine if there was any coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia. Though Mueller ultimately did not charge the president with a crime, he told congress that his report did not exonerate Trump of any wrongdoing.
Trump’s deference to Putin on multiple issues, including siding with him over US intelligence reports that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, has been a regular point of criticism.
In a 2018 press conference alongside Putin, Trump said that, while his “people” had told him Russia interfered in the election, Putin denied it and he believed him.
Trump has also made policy decisions that appear on the surface to align with Russian interests. To the dismay of US officials and military personnel, Trump has withdrawn the US from multiple arms treaties that involve Russia, freeing Russia to begin developing nuclear weapons again. Trump has also frequently criticized longstanding US allies while calling for a closer relationship with Russia.
Most recently, a June 29 report from CNN claims that multiple US officials have been concerned about Trump’s calls with Putin, citing his reverence for the Russian president. Some sources say that Trump has been “outplayed” by Putin on the calls. According to the report, having heard the calls, some US officials believe Trump poses “a danger to the national security of the United States.”
Trump takes on the “Russia hoax”
On March 27, 2017, amid an FBI investigation of the Trump campaign, the president tweeted “Trump Russia story is a hoax.” In the following three and a half years, that has been Trump’s go-to response to any mention of collusion with or deference to Russia.
Since his presidency began, Trump has tweeted “Russia hoax” and “Russian hoax” dozens of times, claiming all related stories were fake and a Democratic-led effort to oust him from the presidency.
After the Mueller Report failed to definitively establish a link between the Trump campaign and Russia, Trump called for an investigation into the US intelligence community, including the FBI.
Trump has also regularly claimed that there is a “deep state” plot against him and has amplified the “Obamagate” conspiracy theory.
Simultaneously, Trump has frequently argued that he is “FAR tougher on Russia” than any of his immediate predecessors. Trump allies, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have supported Trump’s claims, citing the US’s sanctions against Kremlin allies. They also point to US bombings of Syrian military sites, despite Putin’s close relationship with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
But as The New York Times reported in 2019, Trump has often appeared to be at odds with his own administration when it comes to Russia. He has advocated for foreign policy positions towards Russia that US officials have frequently questioned and has reportedly expressed anger at his own administration’s punitive responses to Russian actions.
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