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Opinion In a new interview, Trump again shows that he’s Putin’s puppet

President Trump walks past Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, as they and others gather for a group photograph at the start of the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires on Nov. 30, 2018. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

So Jonathan Swan of Axios did what Chris Wallace of Fox News did not do in an otherwise admirable interview with President Trump: He asked about the reports of Russia placing bounties on the heads of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. The responses were as appalling as you might expect, with the “America First” president once again turning into a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Swan began by asking whether Trump had discussed the reported bounties during his phone call with Putin on July 23. “No, that was a call to discuss other things,” Trump said, explaining that they discussed “nuclear proliferation, which is a very big problem.” Nuclear proliferation is indeed important, although it’s doubtful that Putin has either the ability or the willingness to do much about it. But Putin does have it in his power to stop the headhunting of U.S. troops — if, in fact, it has occurred. But Trump did not ask him to do so or upbraid him for reportedly having carried out such operations in the past. To listen to Trump, the threat to the soldiers under his command wasn’t important enough to bring up.

Trump again cast doubt on the extensive reports, calling them “fake news.” In fact, according to news reporting, the CIA was convinced of the veracity of the claims — especially after Navy SEALs uncovered $500,000 in cash at a Taliban outpost — while the National Security Agency was more skeptical. But the intelligence was credible enough to be widely circulated. Trump flat-out lied when he claimed: “It never reached my desk.” It was reportedly included in the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) in late February. Granted, Trump seldom reads the PDB (in spite of his laughable claim to Swan that “I read it a lot,” and “I comprehend extraordinarily well, probably better than anyone you’ve interviewed in a long time”), but that’s no excuse.

“If it had reached my desk,” Trump said, “I would have done something about it. … But it never reached my desk.” The Russian bounties have reached his desk. They’ve been public since the New York Times broke the news on June 26. Even on the dubious assumption that Trump was previously unaware of the intelligence (which first reached the White House in early 2019), he is certainly aware of it now. But he has not had one word of condemnation for Putin. Not one.

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Nor has Trump condemned Russian attempts to steal coronavirus vaccine research and to again interfere in our elections. Meanwhile, he is taking actions — such as withdrawing nearly 12,000 U.S. troops from Germany and inviting Russia back to the Group of Seven — that serve Kremlin interests.

Trump doesn’t just ignore Russian conduct. He justifies it. In the Axios interview, he dismissed Russia’s provision of weapons to the Taliban by saying: “Well we supplied weapons when they were fighting Russia too. … We did that too.” Talk about moral equivalence — an accusation that Republicans usually fling against Democrats. Trump suggests there is no difference between the United States supporting Afghans fighting for their freedom against the Red Army years before the formation of the Taliban and the Russians supporting Islamist extremists fighting to overthrow a democratically elected government.

Trump’s final word on the subject: “Russia used to be a thing called the Soviet Union. Because of Afghanistan, they went bankrupt, they became Russia, just so you do understand, okay? The last thing that Russia wants to do is to get too much involved with Afghanistan.” Huh? It’s undoubtedly true that Russia doesn’t want to invade Afghanistan again, but that doesn’t mean it won’t try to sabotage U.S. interests there. It has, and it will.

This sounds like a Putin talking point that Trump credulously repeated. If so, it wouldn’t be the first time. The most infamous incident was at the Helsinki summit two years ago, when Trump echoed Putin’s disingenuous denials of attacking the 2016 U.S. election (“President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today”). Trump has also justified the Russian invasion of Crimea (“The people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were”) and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan (“The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia,” he said falsely. “They were right to be there”). He even got himself impeached while acting on Russian disinformation that Ukraine, not Russia, was behind the hacking of the election.

We still don’t know why Trump so consistently puts Putin first, but there is no question that he does. The Axios interview is simply the latest evidence that the American president is in thrall to an anti-American dictator. If President Barack Obama had acted this way, is there any doubt that the Republicans would accuse him of treason? But because it’s Trump, the GOP stays silent about this betrayal of our national interests. If you need another reason to vote against Trump and his enablers, this is it: We can’t afford to have a Putin puppet in the Oval Office.

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Evelyn N. Farkas: Russia is interfering in our elections again. And Trump supporters are emulating Russian tactics.