Speed Reads

russia bounty scandal

Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley were both briefed on Russia's Taliban bounties

Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both testified Thursday that they were briefed earlier this year on U.S. intelligence that Russia was covertly paying bounties to Taliban and associated militants for killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan, though Esper was a little cagey about it.

When asked by Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), Esper said he did not recall a briefing that mentioned "bounties," but when pressed later by a Democratic member of the House Armed Services Committee, he said he had been briefed about Russian "payments" to the Taliban as early as January. He added that he had not elaborated in answering Turner's question because he did not want to politicize the issue. Esper and Milley both said defense intelligence agencies had not corroborated the Russian bounty plot, but they said they are looking into it.

President Trump initially called the Russian bounties on U.S. troops — first reported by The New York Times, then further detailed by several other national news organizations — "just another hoax" from the media. The White House maintains Trump was not briefed on the intelligence until after the Times article, though the intelligence was reportedly included in a Feb. 27 written briefing for Trump he may not have read.

Thursday's House Armed Services Committee hearing, the first congressional appearance by Esper and Milley since March 4, was mostly about Trump's militarized response to anti-racism protests. Both military leaders expressed regret at having accompanied Trump through the newly pacified Lafayette Square for a photo op in front of St. John's Church.