Donald Trump is facing renewed questions over his relationship with Vladimir Putin after reports that he was briefed in writing in February that Russia paid bounties for the deaths of US soldiers in Afghanistan.
After a meeting at the White House on Tuesday, Democratic members of Congress insisted the president must at least have been aware of the allegation against Moscow, yet failed to act.
“Based on what we heard today, it was information that a) the president should have known about and b) based on what we were told today, he did,” Adam Smith, chairman of the House armed services committee, told reporters.
Classified US reports suggested a Russian military intelligence unit offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill US and allied forces in Afghanistan, the New York Times reported last week.
The April 2019 killing of three US marines after a car rigged with explosives detonated near their vehicles as they returned to Bagram airfield in Afghanistan is seen as one possible result of the programme, which the Kremlin has denied.
The damning allegations have revived familiar questions from American political scandals: what did the president know and when did he know it?
Trump has long faced scrutiny for his warm relationship with Putin, including a refusal to accept his own intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Moscow intervened on his behalf in the 2016 presidential election; calls for Russia to rejoin the Group of Seven (G7) leading industrial nations; and the dispatch of ventilators to Russia to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump and Putin spoke by phone six times between 30 March and 1 June – an unusually high number – apparently without the Afghanistan issue being mentioned.
On Monday, the Times reported that information on the bounties was included in a daily written report delivered to the president in late February, with one unnamed official specifying 27 February – a date on which Trump hosted controversial celebrity supporters Diamond and Silk at the White House.
Separately, the Associated Press said senior officials in the White House were aware in early 2019 of the intelligence, and the assessment was included in at least one of Trump’s written daily briefings at the time. John Bolton, then national security adviser, told colleagues at the time he briefed Trump on the intelligence assessment in March 2019, the AP added.
Trump said on Sunday he was not told of the allegations because the information was not “credible”. The White House has claimed there was no consensus among intelligence agencies. The administration is yet to address whether Trump received a written report or if he read it.
At Monday’s White House briefing, the press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, was asked if the information was contained in the president’s daily brief, a summary of high-level information and analysis on national security issues. She replied, carefully: “He was not personally briefed on the matter” and repeated on Tuesday that Trump “was never briefed”.
White House officials briefed Democrats only after sharing information with Republicans on Monday.
After Tuesday’s meeting, Adam Schiff, chairman of the House intelligence committee, told reporters: “As we look at these allegations, number one the president of the United States should not be inviting Russia into the G7 or G8. We should be considering what sanctions are appropriate to further deter Russia’s malign activities.”
Schiff, who prosecuted the impeachment case against Trump over a quid pro quo with Ukraine, added: “There may be a reluctance to brief the president on things he doesn’t want to hear and that may be more true with respect to Putin and Putin’s Russia than with respect to any other subject matter. Many of us do not understand his affinity for that autocratic ruler who means our nation ill.”
Schiff called on Trump to consider imposing new economic sanctions on Russia, as did former national security adviser, John Bolton, who has published a damning book on the president, which suggests Trump is not fit for office.
Ruben Gallego, a member of the armed services committee, told MSNBC: “It is clear that this president has warped the information stream. Because of his love of Putin and Russia, it has made it more difficult, in my opinion, for briefers and people that inform the president of what is happening to keep him up to date on Russian activity, and that has caused a lot of problems.”
Hillary Clinton tweeted of Trump: “Either he knew and chose to do nothing, or he didn’t know because he couldn’t be bothered to do his job.”
The New York Times further reported on Tuesday that US intelligence picked up transfers of large sums from Russian military intelligence to Taliban-linked bank accounts.
Trump’s handling of diplomatic relations took another hit on Monday when Carl Bernstein, the veteran journalist who reported on the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon, published a report online for CNN.
“In hundreds of highly classified phone calls with foreign heads of state,” Bernstein wrote, citing as sources unnamed White House and intelligence officials, Trump “was so consistently unprepared for discussion of serious issues, so often outplayed in his conversations with powerful leaders like Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and so abusive to leaders of America’s principal allies, that the calls helped convince some senior US officials … that the president himself posed a danger to the national security of the United States”.