The New York Times first reported that American intelligence officials have determined a Russian military unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces, including targeting American troops. The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post also reported on the Kremlin’s effort to orchestrate attacks on Western troops.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., called for the Senate to vote on new sanctions against Russia.
“If Trump refuses to hold Putin accountable for funding terrorism against US troops in Afghanistan, then Congress must again step up,” tweeted Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said it’s “imperative” to get answers and urged the Trump administration to tell Congress what it knows about Russia’s efforts to pay bounties to kill American soldiers.
“I expect the Trump Administration to take such allegations seriously and inform Congress immediately as to the reliability of these news reports,” Graham, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted.
The Times reported that President Trump and the White House’s National Security Council were briefed on Russia’s bounty rewards in late March. They discussed an appropriate response, ranging from making a diplomatic complaint to Moscow and economic sanctions, but the White House had not yet authorized a response.
The White House, however, said Saturday that Trump was not briefed on the alleged Russian bounty intelligence, but didn’t confirm or deny the underlying reporting that Russia was giving out rewards to attack U.S. soldiers.
“The United States receives thousands of intelligence reports a day and they are subject to strict scrutiny. While the White House does not routinely comment on alleged intelligence or internal deliberations, the CIA Director, National Security Advisor, and the Chief of Staff can all confirm that neither the President nor the Vice President were briefed on the alleged Russian bounty intelligence,” Kayleigh McEnany, White House press secretary, said in a statement. “This does not speak to the merit of the alleged intelligence but to the inaccuracy of the New York Times story erroneously suggesting that President Trump was briefed on this matter.”
The reporting quickly became fodder for the 2020 presidential campaign.
During a town hall Saturday, former Vice President Joe Biden brought up the “shocking revelation” that Trump reportedly knew of the bounties for months and slammed the president for doing “worse than nothing.”
“Not only has he failed to sanction or impose any kind of consequences on Russia for this egregious violation of international law, Donald Trump has continued his embarrassing campaign of deference and debasing himself before Vladimir Putin,” Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said. “He has had this information according to the Times, and yet he offered to host Putin in the United States and sought to invite Russia to rejoin the G7. His entire presidency has been a gift to Putin.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., questioned how Trump could hold an amicable relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin — even welcoming him to a G-7 Summit in America — while his regime was reportedly trying to kill Americans.
“President Trump was cozying up to Putin and inviting him to the G7 all while his Administration reportedly knew Russia was trying to kill U.S troops in Afghanistan and derail peace talks with the Taliban,” Kaine, the 2016 Democratic vice presidential nominee, tweeted.
Rep. Mike McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he’s already reached out to the Trump Administration about a response.
If the reporting is accurate, McCaul said, “the Administration must take swift and serious action to hold the Putin regime accountable.”
McCaul said if a Russian military intelligence unit offered Afghan militants bounties to kill U.S. troops, it would “only deepen my grave concerns about the Putin regime’s malicious behavior globally.”
The Russian military unit was secretly offering bounties for successful attacks last year in Afghanistan, The Times reported. The unit has been linked to assassination attempts in Europe. Islamist militants are believed to have collected the bounty money. Twenty Americans were killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2019, but it was unclear if any of these deaths were linked to the bounties.
Rep. Lee Zeldin, an Iraq war veteran, said he’s requested additional information. “If this is true, that would be a severe escalation on Russia’s part,” Zeldin, R-N.Y., said.
The reporting renewed Democrats’ suspicion about Trump’s relationship with Putin stemming from the Russian government interfering in the 2016 election campaign.
“Lack of a response by [Trump] suggests he may be beholden to Putin,” Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., tweeted. “[Trump] is putting US troops’ lives at risk by doing nothing. Having served on active duty, I find this behavior by our Commander in Chief to be unacceptable.”
During the presidential race, Russia waged a social media campaign that favored Trump and disparaged Democrat Hillary Clinton and also conducted computer attacks to steal Democratic emails and release them publically. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, however, “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
Fox News’ Madeleine Rivera contributed to this report.