WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said he never questioned Russian leader Vladimir Putin about US intelligence reports that Moscow paid the Taliban to kill American troops in Afghanistan, casting doubt on the reports in an interview.
“I have never discussed it with him,” Trump said in an interview on Tuesday with “Axios on HBO.”
Trump, a Republican who has sought to cultivate warmer relations with Moscow, has said he was not briefed on the matter before it emerged in news media in late June. He has called the reports a hoax and casts doubt on them.
Asked why he did not confront Putin on the issue in their call last Thursday, Trump told Axios, “That was a phone call to discuss other things, and frankly that’s an issue that many people said was fake news.”
He said he and the Russian president discussed nuclear nonproliferation in that phone call.
Democrats in Congress have accused Trump, who is seeking re-election in November, of not taking intelligence information concerning soldiers’ deaths seriously enough. They have pressed for more information from the intelligence community and the White House.
National security adviser Robert O’Brien has said Trump was not verbally briefed on the Russian bounty intelligence because his CIA briefer concluded the reports were uncorroborated.
White House officials have not denied the information was included in the President’s Daily Brief, a summary of a daily summary of classified information and analysis on national security. Some news outlets have reported the bounty issue was included in the PDB in February but that Trump may not have read it.
“It never reached my desk. You know why? Because they didn’t think – intelligence, they didn’t think it was real,” Trump told Axios. “I wouldn’t mind – if it reached my desk, I would have done something about it.”
Trump has spoken to Putin at least eight times since the intelligence was first included in his briefing, Axios said.
Trump has said many intelligence officials doubted the report’s veracity, a stance contradicted by four US and European sources and by its inclusion in a widely read CIA report in May.
The New York Times first reported in June that US intelligence had concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit had offered the Taliban payments of up to $100,000 for each US or allied soldier killed.
Trump told Axios he does read the daily intelligence briefing.
“I read it a lot, you know, I read a lot. They like to say I don’t read. I read a lot,” he said.
Excerpts from the interview were released on Wednesday. It will be broadcast in full on Monday, Aug. 3.
Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Howard Goller and Steve Orlofsky
Image: FILE PHOTO: US President Donald Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan June 28, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo