By David L. Phillips
What’s worse, Russia paying a bounty for Taliban members to kill American Marines, or President Donald J. Trump knowing about it – and doing nothing?
Trump says nobody told him. However, he received intelligence analysis of the Russian bounty scheme in his President’s Daily Brief (PDB) in February 2020.
The PDB is a professional and non-partisan product. It is prepared under the auspices of the Director of National Intelligence, drawing from 17 intelligence agencies across the U.S. Government. It is the most credible and important forum for alerting the President to urgent national security matters.
However, Trump rarely reads the PDB. In fact, he rarely reads at all.
Trump’s spokesperson, Kayleigh McEnany, insists that Trump was not personally informed of attempts by Russia’s Military Intelligence (GRU) to kill U.S. soldiers. However, National Security Adviser John Bolton says that he gave Trump a formal threat briefing about Russia’s bounty scheme in March 2019 – 15 months ago. Trump either didn’t pay attention or was willfully ignorant.
How could the President of the United States ignore such a heinous revelation? At a minimum, Trump should have issued a strong presidential statement condemning Russia, with sanctions and other punitive measures to follow.
Trump may not have understood the information or did not absorb its significance. Trump has the attention span of a schoolboy. He may have been distracted by other matters such as impeachment.
There’s still a lot we don’t know. Was Trump briefed orally and/or in writing? If he was briefed and took no action, why not?
Trump has repeatedly shown that he is servile and beholden to Vladimir Putin. The same intelligence agencies that raised concerns about the Russian bounty scheme concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. Trump doesn’t want to anger Putin whose help he’ll need in November 2020.
Silence is complicity, but Trump did even worse.
While all this was going on, he had regular contact with Putin on a range of issues we know nothing about.
We know that Trump publicly called for Russia to rejoin the G7 in June, overlooking Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine. Other G7 members balked at the proposed invitation to Putin; Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel declined to attend the meeting.
We know that when Russia bombed hospitals in Syria, violating standards of decency and international humanitarian law, the Trump administration turned a blind eye.
McEnany says there was "no consensus within the intelligence community" about Russia’s bounty scheme. However, the finding was reportedly confirmed by electronic eavesdropping and the interrogation of Taliban detainees. National Security Council staff held a meeting in the spring to discuss "possible response options."
For sure, raw intelligence is not definitive. Intelligence is never bulletproof. But inclusion in the PDB makes the finding credible enough for serious concern.
The Russian Bounty Scheme raises damning questions about Trump’s relations with Putin, as well as his overall national security approach. From Ukraine, to China and Turkey, Trump’s foreign policy reeks of incompetence, self-interest, and corruption.
Willful ignorance does not mean innocence. The families of U.S. personnel who died in Afghanistan deserve accountability. The House and Senate intelligence committees must hold hearings and urgently investigate. The American people have a right to know what Trump knew, when he knew it, who died, and why?
Trump betrayed a sacred trust with US troops, endangering the lives of U.S. Marines. Our service men and women put their trust in their Commander in Chief. The American people rely on the President to keep them safe.
Americans concerned by Trump’s dereliction of duty will have the opportunity to express their outrage at the polls in November. Until then, more transparency is needed on Russia’s bounty scheme and what Trump knew.
(Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Human Rights at Columbia University. He served as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Expert at the State Department during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations).