Asked by Axios’s Jonathan Swan if he brought up this issue in his July 23 call with Putin, Trump blithely said he had not.
“No, that was a phone call to discuss other things,” Trump replied. “And frankly, that’s an issue that many people said was fake news.” Trump further confirmed: “I have never discussed it with him."
Things only got worse from there. Three big takeaways:
Trump accidentally revealed his own dereliction in a new way. Note this exchange:
TRUMP: It never reached my desk. You know why? Because they didn’t think — intelligence — they didn’t think it was real.SWAN: It was in your written brief.TRUMP: They didn’t think it was worthy. If it reached my desk, I would have done something about it. It never reached my desk, because —SWAN: Do you read your written brief?TRUMP: I do.
Trump, perhaps sensing his audience might crave some comic relief at this point, then claimed to have more penetrating reading comprehension than anyone Swan has interviewed. But that aside, this is an important concession, because intelligence on the bounties actually did reach Trump’s desk.
Intelligence officials provided Trump a written briefing on this in February. As the New York Times explained, it detailed the conclusion that a “Russian military intelligence unit offered and paid bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan.”
It’s important to note that there has been a genuine dispute about the real significance of this intelligence. And there is still a great deal we don’t know about this story.
But the very fact that the intelligence was presented to Trump — as well as the fact that its significance is in dispute — should itself have prompted action. As one former briefer of presidents puts it, “the nature of intelligence” is “inherently dealing with uncertainty.”
Indeed, intelligence officials sometimes determine that the president needs to know about intelligence even if its meaning is in dispute. The whole point of presenting it is to alert the president to something that warrants more attention and investigation. That’s what happened here.
Trump just unwittingly admitted to this. If the intel reached his desk, he said, it would have been important to deal with it. He’s right about this, but that’s why it was presented to him — it required presidential attention. Even some Republicans have admitted this intelligence warrants more scrutiny.
Trump almost certainly didn’t read this briefing, of course. But this has now been widely discussed for weeks, yet Trump still didn’t bring it up with Putin, again revealing his continuing disinterest in getting to the bottom of what actually happened. That’s the opposite of exonerating.
Trump’s personal and political interests are aligned with Russia’s. Michael Carpenter, a former adviser to Joe Biden, has argued that these bounties could represent an escalation of broader covert Russian warfare on western democracies, which also includes disinformation warfare designed to destabilize elections.
Whatever the truth of that, we know that Trump does not want to get to the bottom of it. Why?
Remember that last week, Trump’s own intelligence officials revealed that Russia is continuing to interfere in our elections. Crucial to this, they said, is Russia’s current use of “disinformation” to “undermine confidence in our democratic process,” also a key reason for Russia’s 2016 electoral subversion. But their warning was maddeningly vague.
Trump, too, is wielding disinformation to undermine confidence in our democratic outcomes, spreading the lie that vote-by-mail will “rig” the election, delegitimizing a losing result in advance. He plainly sees Russia-stoked chaos as good for him, and has even openly invited outside interference on his behalf.
In the electoral context, Trump is perfectly fine with Russia attacking U.S. democracy if it benefits him. This is of course not to say Trump is fine with Russian bounties on U.S. troops. He very well might sincerely believe it isn’t happening.
Rather, the point is that Trump has reasons for generally not wanting to probe too deeply into stories that might expose Russian intentions toward the U.S. in a particularly malign light when he may be hoping to gain from more Russian undermining of U.S. democracy. Those reasons prioritize self-interest over the national interest. That’s key context for explaining his sheer disinterest in getting to the bottom of the bounties.
Trump’s excuses reveal a twisted worldview. Swan noted that John Nicholson, the former top commander in Afghanistan, has also said Russia is supplying weapons to the Taliban, then asked Trump if this alone warranted challenging Putin over the bounties.
Trump brushed off the question, saying the U.S. similarly armed groups during Russia’s Afghanistan war: “We did that too.”
This has been a pattern. Asked if the Saudis should be held accountable for the butchery of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump said that “maybe the world should be held accountable” because it’s a “very vicious place.”
And when an interviewer told Trump that Putin is “a killer,” Trump replied: “There are a lot of killers. You think our country is so innocent?”
Yes, of course the United States has its own horrifying history and the world is full of viciousness. But Trump’s real point is not to seriously lament these things. It’s that accountability and a better world are not ideals we should strive for, particularly when it means operating against his own perceived interests.
This is especially the case, apparently, when it comes to Putin — and of course Trump himself.
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