President Donald Trump said he hasn’t discussed US intelligence that alleged Russia offered bounties to Taliban fighters to kill US troops in Afghanistan with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a recent telephone call.
Trump, in an interview with Axios that was released on Wednesday, also continued to downplay the validity of the US intelligence and drew a moral equivalency between the possibility that Russia backed efforts to kill US troops and the American campaign to aid anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
“I have never discussed it with Putin. I would, I have no problem with it,” Trump said in a clip of the interview, which is set to air on HBO Monday. HBO is owned by WarnerMedia, the same parent company as CNN.
The President said he spoke with Putin via phone last Thursday.
“No, that was a phone call to discuss other things, and frankly, that’s an issue that many people said was fake news,” Trump said in the Axios interview.
Russian intelligence officers for the GRU, a military intelligence unit, offered money to Taliban militants in Afghanistan as a reward if they killed US or British troops there, a European intelligence official told CNN last month.
CNN previously reported that the intelligence that assessed that the bounty effort was included in one of the President’s daily briefings on intelligence matters sometime in the spring. Trump is not known to fully or regularly read the President’s Daily Brief, something that is well-known within the White House. He is instead orally briefed two or three times a week by his intelligence officials, and the White House has said he was not briefed about this in an oral session.
Trump has previously declined to say whether the issue came up between himself and Putin, telling reporters Monday that he doesn’t discuss calls with foreign leaders, though the White House regularly releases readouts of these types of calls and the President frequently discusses them. Trump and Putin have had at least one call over the past five months, according to a CNN count.
During the interview with Axios, Trump was pressed on who specifically said the reports were “fake news.”
“A lot of people,” Trump replied, pointing to “folks from the Bush administration.”
Trump said later Wednesday he would be “very angry” if the intelligence “were true.”
“I don’t know why they’d be doing it, but if you tell me they’re doing it, I would certainly take that under consideration,” Trump told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House before departing for a trip to Texas.
Trump also said he would “respond appropriately” to the bounty matter if the intelligence pans out.
The bounty intelligence, he told Axios, “never reached my desk.”
“If it had reached my desk, I would’ve done something about it. It never reached my desk,” he said, going on to say that he does read his briefing book and he “(comprehends) extraordinarily well.”
He said the two discussed nuclear proliferation and “numerous things.”
Asked about Russia supplying weapons to the Taliban, Trump also said, “Well, we supplied weapons when they were fighting Russia, too,” adding that he did not ask John Nicholson, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, about the matter.
The campaign for Joe Biden, Trump’s 2020 rival, called Trump’s actions “an indefensible pattern” of him weakening the US “in a manner that no American president ever has before” and “absolutely despicable.”
“The most critical and sacred obligation of a commander-in-chief is to protect those who serve our nation in harm’s way. But months after the US intelligence community sounded the alarm – to Donald Trump and to our allies – that Russia was placing bounties on the heads of American servicemen and women in a warzone, our president continues to turn his back on those who put their lives on the line for our country, and on his own duty,” Andrew Bates, a Biden campaign spokesperson, said in a statement Wednesday.
And Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, accused Trump on CNN’s “New Day” of continuing “to cozy up to Vladimir Putin,” adding that it’s “inconceivable to me” that the intelligence did not reach the President’s desk.
The White House, however, has said there was a lack of consensus in the intelligence community about the bounty intelligence. Gen. Frank McKenzie, the top US general overseeing operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan, said earlier this month that the intelligence concerning Russian operatives offering bounties to Taliban-linked militants was “very worrisome” but that the information wasn’t solid enough to hold up in a court of law. He also said at the time he was not convinced that the bounty program was directly responsible for the deaths of US personnel.
Trump has repeatedly deferred to Putin when presented with US intelligence alleging nefarious activity by Russia. Most memorably, he publicly sided with the Russian President in 2018 when he took Putin’s denial about Russian meddling in the 2016 election over the conclusions of US intelligence, though Trump later said he misspoke.
Trump has also downplayed Putin’s authoritarian tendencies and Russian agitation. When pressed about Putin’s behavior in 2017, Trump responded, “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?”
CNN’s Marshall Cohen, Arlette Saenz and Veronica Stracqualursi contributed to this report.