President Trump needs a better response to the “Russian Bounties’ issue. In a recent piece, I noted that the media was creating a firestorm over whether President Trump had been briefed on contentious intelligence that Russia had been offering Taliban fighters bounties for killing Americans in Afghanistan.
I also argued that if confirmed, these Russian actions were serious and required a strong US response.
The evidence seems to confirm Trump’s statements that he had not received a verbal threat briefing on this issue, even if the White House had been made aware in March, or earlier, via a written Presidential Daily Brief (PDB).
I also noted that the illegal leaking of this highly classified intelligence to the New York Times had damaged the ability of the Intelligence Community (IC) to properly vet the intelligence and confirm Russian culpability.
None of that has changed.
However, President Trump’s comments since have been less helpful. While Trump’s frustration with the media is understandable, and it can be argued that the story – as spun by the media – is yet another anti-Trump “hoax,” the potential issue of Russian military intelligence paying terrorists to kill American troops is not.
On July 1, Trump tweeted:
The Russia Bounty story is just another made up by Fake News tale that is told only to damage me and the Republican Party. The secret source probably does not even exist, just like the story itself. If the discredited @nytimes has a source, reveal it. Just another HOAX!
Trump then repeated the message in a second tweet – saying it was “all made up Fake News Media Hoax started to slander me & the Republican Party. I was never briefed because any info that they may have had did not rise to that level.”
ABC News reported that top White House aides argue that “the president wasn’t actually calling the underlying intelligence ‘fake’ but was instead taking issue with media reporting.” This is not an unreasonable argument, like Trump’s statements regarding the media reporting on the Wuhan COVID-19 Virus as being a hoax, not the virus itself.
ABC News continued by quoting National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien:
I think what is a hoax is the initial reporting,” …O’Brien told reporters at the White House Wednesday. “And I believe this was The New York Times — that the president had been briefed about this unverified, uncorroborated intelligence, and chose not to take action on it. That was a hoax, and there’s no question about it.
I will agree with O’Brien on that. As expected, much of the reporting was framed in such a way as to simply make POTUS look bad. And, as Trump noted, the Pentagon has stated that it “has no corroborating evidence to validate the recent allegations found in open-source reports.”
Nevertheless, the President is not helping his case by appearing to deny that the intelligence even exists. Republican congressmen who received an intelligence briefing on Tuesday explained things far better.
According to NPR, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas stated, “I think the allegations are very serious. And if true, I think we need to take swift and severe action against Putin and his mercenaries.” McCaul also explained that the IC was divided on the matter. As I noted earlier, apparently the NSA is strongly dissenting with other agencies, especially the CIA on the Russian bounties issue.
Trump should follow McCaul’s approach – state that the intelligence is still not conclusive, note that the media is out to get him, and these illegal leaks have undermined the ICs ability to get to the bottom of the things.
But – then the President should also state unequivocally that he intends to get answers – and if it is proven that Russian military intelligence paid bounties to kill American troops, it is unacceptable, and Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Russia will be held accountable.
That would be Trump’s far better response.