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President Trump denies knowing about an intelligence report that said Russia paid a bounty to the Taliban to kill U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan.

USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – U.S. intelligence officials believe Russian operatives secretly offered cash payments to Taliban-linked militants to kill coalition troops, including Americans, in Afghanistan, according to multiple news media reports. 

The New York Times, which first reported the story Friday, said a unit of Russia’s military intelligence agency – the G.R.U. known for orchestrating assassinations and destabilization efforts against western democracies – was behind the bounties on U.S. troops. 

Russia and the Taliban have denied the reports and President Donald Trump has denied knowing about the reported bounties. 

Here is what we know so far: 

The bounties

Interrogations of militants and criminals in Afghanistan were the basis for the U.S. intelligence assessment that Russia was offering money for successful attacks on coalition troops last year, according to the Times. 

The Associated Press reported that suspicions about Russia deepened when members of the elite Naval Special Warfare Development Group, known to the public as SEAL Team Six, raided a Taliban outpost and recovered roughly $500,000 in early 2020. 

Some U.S. officials have long believed Russian President Vladimir Putin was acting against American interests in Afghanistan, where the then-Soviet Union conducted a bloody and costly war in the 1980s.

In March 2018, Gen. John Nicholson – who was then the commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan but has since retired – told the BBC Russia was supplying the Taliban with arms. Russia and the Taliban denied the allegation. 

Did the bounties lead to attacks? 

Unnamed intelligence officials told the AP they are investigating attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2019 to see if there was any evidence connecting them to the Russian bounties. Incidents in which Afghan security forces killed coalition troops – known as “green on blue” attacks – are a particular focus of the inquiry. 

An April 2019 attack on a convoy that killed three U.S. Marines is one incident being closely looked at, AP reported. 

The Washington Post reported that U.S. interrogations of captured militants indicated the bounties “resulted in the deaths of several U.S. service members.” Overall in 2019, 17 U.S. service members died in hostilities in Afghanistan, according to the Department of Defense. 

Trump denies knowledge 

The Times and AP reported that Trump was briefed on the intelligence assessment. According to the Times, the briefing took place in late March. 

Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said in a statement Saturday that he had “confirmed that neither the President nor the Vice President were ever briefed on any intelligence alleged by the New York Times in its reporting.” 

On Twitter, Trump insisted he did not know about the reported bounty and attacked the Times for the report. 

“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,” Trump said Sunday morning.

“Nobody’s been tougher on Russia than the Trump administration,” he insisted in another tweet. 

On Sunday night, Trump said he had “just” been told by intelligence officials that they did not find the assessment “credible” and had therefore decided not to brief him or Vice President Mike Pence on the matter. He speculated, without evidence, that the Times had published the report “to make Republicans look bad!!!” 

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters at a White House news briefing on Monday the intelligence was not shared with Trump because it had not been “verified.” 

“There is no consensus within the intelligence community on these allegations,” McEnany said, adding there were “dissenting opinions” on the intelligence assessment. 

Despite the White House denials, the Times defended its reporting. 

“We stand by our story, the details of which have not been denied by the President’s own National Security agencies,” said Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy. 

Trump: President denies knowing about intelligence report that Russia put bounty on US troops

Lawmakers demand answers 

Republicans and Democrats reacted to the news reports with demands that the White House brief lawmakers on the intelligence assessment and the Trump administration’s response. 

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wy., said Sunday the White House had to explain why Trump and Pence were not briefed on the assessment and whether it was included in the president’s daily intelligence briefing. 

“Who did know and when?” Cheney asked. “What has been done in response to protect our forces & hold Putin accountable?” 

“We’ve known for a long time that Putin is a thug and a murderer, and if the allegations reported in the New York Times are true, I will work with President Trump on a strong response,” tweeted Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla. “Right now, though, we need answers. I have asked the administration to share what it knows, and I expect to know more in the coming days.” 

On Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sent a letter to Ratcliffe and CIA Director Gina Haspel requesting an interagency briefing for all House members on the reported Russian bounty on U.S. troops. 

“The questions that arise are: was the President briefed, and if not, why not, and why was Congress not briefed,” Pelosi wrote. “Congress and the country need answers now.” 

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called for an “immediate briefing from the Directors of National Intelligence and the CIA for all 100 Senators on reports that Russia placed bounties on US Troops in Afghanistan.”

“We also need to know whether or not President Trump was told this information, and if so, when,” Schumer said. 

Senate Majority Leaders Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement that he has “long warned about Russia’s efforts to undermine U.S. interests in the Middle East from Syria to Afghanistan.”

“The United States needs to prioritize defense resources, maintain a sufficient regional military presence, and continue to impose serious consequences on those who threaten us and our allies – like our strikes in Syria and Afghanistan against ISIS, the Taliban, and Russian mercenary forces that threatened our partners,” McConnell said. 

McEnany said a bipartisan group of eight lawmakers were being briefed on the matter at the White House Monday. 

Biden’s response 

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden seized on the reports, which he called “shocking,” to deliver an attack on the president. 

“The commander in chief of American troops, serving in the dangerous theater of war, has known about this for months, according to The Times, and done worse than nothing,” Biden said Saturday during a virtual town hall hosted by the group Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote.

“Not only has he failed to sanction or impose any kind of consequences on Russia for this egregious violation of international law, Donald Trump has continued his embarrassing campaign of deference and debasing himself before Vladimir Putin.” 

Biden said Trump’s entire presidency “has been a gift” to Putin, “but this is beyond the pale.”

In response to Biden, Trump said “Russia ate his and Obama’s lunch during their time in office.” 

“U.S. was weak on everything, but especially Russia!” Trump said of the Obama era. 

Contributing: Michael Collins and David Jackson, USA TODAY; The Associated Press 

Pelosi: ‘I don’t know what the Russians have on the president’

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