Russia is once again threatening to become a major factor in a U.S. presidential election as long-standing fears about President Trump’s deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin crystallize in a scandal over alleged Russian bounty payments targeting U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

The emergence of Russia as an election theme comes four years after its operation to hack and release emails of Trump’s Democratic rivals put the Kremlin front and center during the last presidential campaign.

The possibility that Russia paid Taliban-linked militants to target U.S. forces — and that the president received intelligence reports about the activity but did little about it — has revived allegations, particularly among Democrats, that Trump is loath to confront Russia, even when it comes to an issue as fundamental as protecting American troops.

The Post's Ellen Nakashima on President Trump's response to reports that Russia paid bounties to Taliban-linked militants in Afghanistan. (The Washington Post)

“It is bringing [Russia] back to the center of the election not so much as a foreign policy challenge but as a tool for domestic political struggle,” said Thomas Graham, a senior adviser at Kissinger Associates who served as senior director for Russia on the White House National Security Council under President George W. Bush.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came to Trump’s defense Wednesday, reasserting that the Trump administration has been particularly tough on Russia. As evidence, Pompeo cited U.S. military budget increases partially targeting Russian forces, the White House’s withdrawal from a key nuclear treaty over the Kremlin’s objections and U.S. pressure on the Russian paramilitary group Wagner, which has operated in Syria at times in proximity to American forces.

“This administration has taken seriously the threat from Russia,” Pompeo said at a news conference, accusing the Obama administration of leaving a lot to “clean up.”

Pelosi and Bolton expressed concern on June 28 about reports that President Trump was briefed on a Russia effort to target U.S. forces in Afghanistan. (The Washington Post)

Russian involvement against U.S. interests in Afghanistan is “nothing new,” Pompeo said. Russia has been “selling small arms that have put Americans at risk for 10 years.” Without referring to the bounties, Pompeo said he brings up Afghanistan “each time” he talks to his Russian counterparts, “maybe not every time but with great frequency.” His message to them, he said, is: “Stop this.”

Still, the hawkish moves and words by the administration against Russia that Pompeo regularly cites as proof of the president’s firmness toward Moscow have done little to quell concerns that Trump may be advancing Russian interests and is consistently shying away from rebuking Putin. The question has surfaced time and again, most recently with Trump’s decision to withdraw 9,500 U.S. troops stationed in Germany, a move criticized as aiding the Kremlin.

 Russia has denied paying bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. troops, a denial Trump appeared to cite in a Fox News interview as evidence that the reports were false.

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. Instead, Trump told Fox News on Wednesday that the entire affair is a “hoax by the newspapers and the Democrats” and insisted he wasn’t briefed on the intelligence in the first place because it was inconclusive.

For Trump’s critics, the silence on Putin is part of a disconcerting trend.

“It seems like it would be such an easy thing to say: ‘If these revelations are true, they are completely outrageous and there need to be consequences,’ ” said Michael McFaul, a professor at Stanford University who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration. “What is the downside of saying that domestically, in terms of his electoral politics? I don’t think there is any.”

What is so striking, McFaul said, is “Trump’s consistent support for Putin — no matter what.”

“One thing he has been consistent about for four years is never criticizing Putin and always seeking to befriend him,” McFaul said.

The latest scandal has focused attention on that pattern of behavior.

Lawmakers fear Trump possibly wasn’t given the intelligence about the bounty payments because his subordinates were worried that negative information about Russia might anger him. Worse, some fear that Trump saw the intelligence but didn’t want to confront Putin or simply chose not to believe it.

Trump has been at odds with his own spies for years over their assessments of Russia, dating back to the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Putin authorized an operation to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election in support of Trump.

After taking office, Trump revealed classified information to the Russian ambassador and foreign minister in a 2017 Oval Office meeting. During a 2018 summit with Putin in Helsinki, Trump publicly sided with Putin over his own intelligence agencies regarding the 2016 interference, saying the Russian president was “extremely strong and powerful in his denial.”

“The bigger picture here is there has been an incredibly contentious relationship between the intelligence agencies and this White House on the Russia question — but not just the Russia question,” said Alina Polyakova, president and chief executive of the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Polyakova said those tensions could create a situation where subordinates would be fearful, reluctant or anxious about presenting intelligence on Russia to Trump, not only because it might upset him, but also because they would be worried about his response.

Republicans including Pompeo have regularly defended Trump by listing the hard-line measures the administration has approved against Russia in the past 3½ years.

Those include the provision of antitank weaponry to Ukrainian forces fighting Russian proxies — a move the Obama administration had declined to take — as well as the U.S. withdrawal from arms control treaties against Moscow’s wishes. The administration has also implemented an array of sanctions.

But Trump has often undermined such initiatives.

His administration, for example, announced sanctions after the same Russian military intelligence unit accused of offering the bounties in Afghanistan tried to kill a former Russian spy on British soil using the nerve agent novichok. Despite the sanctions, Trump expressed doubts that Russia was behind the poisoning in a 2018 phone call with British Prime Minister Theresa May.

Trump’s actions similarly ran counter to his administration’s Ukraine policy. Though his administration sent antitank weapons to Ukrainian forces in their fight against Russian proxies, Trump privately expressed contempt for Ukraine to his aides, and instead of backing the nation’s new leadership in the face of Kremlin pressure last year, he squeezed its newly elected president to help smear former vice president Joe Biden in exchange for U.S. support. The result was his impeachment and a further breakdown in U.S. policy toward Ukraine.

At NATO, the Trump administration has bolstered the alliance’s eastern periphery next to Russia and pushed members to increase defense spending.

“That’s all moving in the right direction, but Trump personally has done more damage to NATO and the unity of NATO than any president since the founding of the alliance,” McFaul said, recalling Trump’s history of clashing with the alliance, which he called “obsolete” while campaigning in 2016.

The result is incoherence in the administration’s approach to Russia, no matter how squarely strategic documents and mid-level policymakers take aim at Moscow.

“You don’t have the president on board with your strategy, therefore you don’t have a strategy,” said Daniel Fried, a fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former U.S. ambassador to Poland. “You can’t give a speech outlining a Russia policy because the president will undercut it with a tweet.”

Measures the administration has taken against Russia have been undermined by Trump’s public embrace of Putin and other autocrats, Fried said, as well as by the president’s abandonment of a values-based U.S. foreign policy that credibly promotes ideals such as democracy, justice and human rights. Fried cited that traditional U.S. approach as most effective in galvanizing allies against Putin and his agenda.

Fried said he suspects that Trump’s posture toward Russia is not because Trump is doing Putin’s bidding, but because he shares much of Putin’s outlook. The two leaders have drawn on many of the same nationalist, populist and authoritarian impulses — and sometimes appear to share a worldview.  

“There’s a consistency of a kind of cynical, value-free assessment of the world, and the amateur’s conceit that values are just cover for something else,” Fried said.

“That’s the problem,” Fried said. “He prefers Putinism.”