russia bounty scandal
July 10, 2020

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. Peter Weber

July 7, 2020

The Trump administration has often said it would sniff out leakers within its own ranks to no avail. But this time, Politico reports, the White House seems more determined than usual.

Per Politico, the administration has opened an internal investigation to figure out who leaked intelligence about Russia allegedly offering bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan. Some of the anger about the leak may have to do with the fact that the information was highly-classified, but the bombshell report also sparked backlash against President Trump for failing to address the issue. The White House responded by denying Trump was ever briefed on the intelligence, which only led to more criticism.

After a series of interviews, the administration reportedly believes it's narrowed down the list to fewer than 10 people who had access to the intelligence. The White House maintains the story was overblown and the report itself is far from conclusive, although follow-up reporting provided further evidence that the bounties were real. Read more at Politico. Tim O'Donnell

June 30, 2020

As multiple news organizations flesh out the details of the U.S. intelligence assessment that Russia offered and likely paid bounties to Taliban-linked fighters for killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan, President Trump and the White House have maintained that Trump never got a briefing on the intelligence. The White House has carefully not denied reports that this intelligence was detailed in at least one President's Daily Brief, the written roundup of essential classified news provided by U.S. intelligence agencies, leaving open the possibility Trump was sent the explosive information but didn't read it.

University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck proposes that is, politically, Trump's best bad option.

Joe Scarborough called Trump's professed ignorance an outright lie on Tuesday's Morning Joe.

New York's Jonathan Chait explores the possibility that Trump's intelligence briefers counted on him not reading the PDB and tiptoed around the Russia bounties "because experience has taught them not to broach the topic of Russian misconduct with the boss." That's not great for Trump either, he said. "If his sensitivity is so acute that they could not even bring up a scheme to finance attacks on the American military — a literal act of war — then the effect is tantamount to the worst-case scenario."

David Ignatius at The Washington Post finds that scenario pretty plausible, arguing that Trump's more troublesome ignorance regards the "basic truth" that Russian President Vladimir Putin "is in the payback business" and especially "likes the United States to feel pain, in Afghanistan and everywhere else" — but especially Afghanistan, where CIA support for Islamist insurgents helped bring down the Soviet Union.

Gen. John "Mick" Nicholson Jr. publicly disclosed that Russia was arming and funding the Taliban back in March 2018, Ignatius writes. But "Trump didn't press the Russians to stop, and so they continued." He has continued his steady "buzz of happy talk about improving relations with Putin" ever since, Ignatius added, so "either people don't tell him the truth, or he doesn't want to hear it. Whichever way, he's defaulting on his most basic responsibility as commander in chief." Peter Weber

June 30, 2020

Eight Republican House members went to the White House on Monday for a briefing on U.S. intelligence assessments that Russia offered or paid cash bounties to Taliban-tied militants to kill U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan. They left confused at the insistence from President Trump and his aides that Trump never got a "briefing" on the alleged Russian plot.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said he was convinced the Russian bounty plot is likely real and "may have been" included in one of Trump's President's Daily Brief (PDB) written classified intelligence roundups. The White House and Director of National Intelligence's office declined to say if the bounty intelligence was included in Trump's PDB. "Trump routinely skips reading the report," NBC News notes, citing multiple officials.

The Associated Press reports at least two Trump PDBs did detail the bounty plot, in early 2019 and another earlier this year; one intelligence official told The New York Times the one this year was presented to Trump on Feb. 27. Trump was also briefed on the Russian plot in person by successive national security advisers in March 2019 and earlier this year, AP reports.

"Anything with any hint of credibility that would endanger our service members, much less put a bounty on their lives, to me should have been briefed immediately to the commander in chief and a plan to deal with that situation," said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas). A small group of House Democrats will get a White House briefing on Tuesday.

"I just reviewed the intel," Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) tweeted Monday night. "It's not a hoax, Mr. President." Sen Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) had questions: "No. 1, Who knew what, when? And did the commander-in-chief know? And if not, how the hell not? And No. 2, What are we going to do as a proportional cost in response?"

Former intelligence officials dismissed the White House claim Trump wasn't briefed because of lack of consensus among intelligence agencies, noting that the Russian plot was deemed credible enough it was shared with British and, just last Thursday, NATO allies and discussed at top levels of the National Security Council. "Given that there was an NSC meeting, I suspect that [Trump] did know," former CIA director Michael Hayden told The Washington Post. "It is reprehensible that Trump has said nothing about it since it's become public other than, 'I didn't know.' What is he going to do about it?" Peter Weber

June 28, 2020

It remains unclear if President Trump was briefed on an U.S. intelligence report that found that the GRU, a Russian military intelligence unit, offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants in Afghanistan to kill U.S. and coalition troops, but NBC News shed a little more light on the report itself.

Three people briefed on the matter confirmed the U.S. had indeed gathered the intelligence, which was first reported by The New York Times, although there's no telling how persuasive it is — one source said the assessment was based in part on interviews with Afghan detainees, which wouldn't alone prove the findings, and a senior defense official told NBC News there was no evidence bounties were actually ever paid. But agencies seemingly believed it had some merit since it was reportedly shared with both congressional leaders and the British government. Similarly, CNN is reporting that the intelligence inspired efforts to protect U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

With all that in mind, it seems strange that Trump was never made aware of the situation, but the White House and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe both denied the Times' report that he was briefed on the matter in March. Tim O'Donnell

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