You pay to kill our troops—we won’t invite you to our meeting of world leaders.
That’s the scenario being mulled by senior officials in the upper echelons of the Trump administration, who are scrambling for a way to respond to Russia after news broke that Moscow paid bounties to the Taliban to kill U.S. forces. One idea these officials have raised with President Donald Trump in recent days: not inviting Russian President Vladimir Putin to attend the G7 summit of global powers later this year.
President Trump told reporters in late May that he wanted to invite Russia to the meeting (which used to be known as the G8, until Russia was suspended for annexing Crimea and invading Ukraine). And that following Monday, Trump spoke with Putin on the phone to discuss, among other things, the G7 gathering and the possibility that Russia might attend.
But over the last several days, senior officials in the White House, including National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, have recommended to Trump that he not formally extend that invitation in the wake of the recent reports about the Russian bounties. (That’s according to two U.S. officials and a third source familiar with the matter.) While President Trump has not made a final decision on whether to officially invite Russia to the G7, officials say the administration is also considering inviting India and Australia to the meeting.
When government officials have briefed the president in the past week on the bounty intel and the G7, as well as the way forward on messaging and possible policy moves, they have encountered a familiar problem: holding Trump’s attention. In at least two instances in recent days when officials or aides have discussed the option of rescinding his offer to Putin, Trump responded by not committing one way or the other. According to two sources familiar with the matter, he instead quickly pivoted to bashing the media, particularly The New York Times, which broke the news of the bounties.
The discussions about the G7 highlight the extent to which the administration is concerned about the optics of Trump embracing Russia in the middle of an uproar over its military intelligence service paying the Taliban to kill American troops. It also shows how constrained administration officials believe their options to be, given the president’s long-documented admiration for Putin.
Trump “has made it perfectly clear that he wants to do Russia’s bidding,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT).
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Since the Times broke the news about the bounties, officials have grappled with how to defend the integrity of what’s been called an ongoing investigation into the Russian payoffs while also protecting Trump himself. The administration’s top intelligence and national security officials have all claimed that the president was not verbally briefed on the intelligence because there was a lack of consensus over the validity of the bounty evidence. Yet the information was deemed solid enough to make it into the President’s Daily Brief.
But as The Daily Beast previously reported, a classified U.S. intelligence report makes it clear that Russia is supporting the Taliban materially and financially, and that there is serious evidence pointing to the fact that it is also paying bounties. So far, though, the administration has not made any moves to publicly address the issue, though senior administration officials said the Pentagon had issued warnings about the bounties to troops on the ground in Afghanistan. Backing away from offering Putin an invitation to the G7 could be a way for the president to take a public stand against Russia while at the same time preserving the goodwill between the two countries, an official familiar with the administration’s G7 conversations said. And maybe, if worded right, it might not piss off Trump.
On Capitol Hill, where the intelligence report has circulated in recent days, Democrats are calling on the White House to address the Russian bounties. Some suggested issuing additional sanctions. Others said the president should demand that Putin put a stop to the bounty program.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), a member of the Armed Services Committee and an Iraq War veteran, expressed exasperation on Thursday with what she said was an inadequate briefing on the Russia bounty question from the Defense Department. She has yet to hear from Afghanistan war commander Gen. Scott Miller, CIA Director Gina Haspel or Gen. Paul Nakasone, director of the NSA.
While Duckworth cautioned that she has not been fully briefed, she said the administration ought to do “much more” than not inviting Putin to attend the forthcoming G7 summit.
“Obviously, we can have sanctions, obviously the president should be reaching out to the Russians saying, ‘You will not do this, you will cease and end this,’” she said.
But Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, suggested on Wednesday that, at this point, there’s little Congress can do to rein in the president’s clearly pro-Moscow instincts.
“I think it's impossible for Congress to override the president’s Russia policy. The President sets foreign policy… Congress can pass additional sanctions, but if the President continues to try to bring them into the G7, if he withdraws troops from Germany, there’s nothing we can do that counteracts the administration’s policy,” Murphy said. “I don’t think Russia cares too much about congressional sanctions if the president is cheering them back into the G7 and withdrawing troops from NATO countries.”
—with additional reporting by Spencer Ackerman and Sam Brodey