In a new interview, President Donald Trump said he did not raise the issue of Russia paying bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan during a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week because the intelligence behind the claim is suspect and he doesn’t believe Russia wants to “get involved” in the region.
“That’s an issue many people said was fake news,” Trump told Axios during a sit-down at the White House on Tuesday. “If you look at some of the wonderful folks from the Bush administration — not any folks of mine — they’re saying it’s a fake issue. There are a lot of people saying it was a fake issue.”
Last month, the New York Times reported that Trump and other top administration officials were briefed earlier this year (and possibly months before that) on intelligence reports showing financial incentives given to Taliban fighters by officials linked to the Russian government to target and kill American troops in Afghanistan.
White House officials have publicly questioned the validity of the intelligence since then, calling the allegations unsettled and insisting the issue never rose to the level of the president.
In the new interview, Trump said he would have broached the topic with Putin during a recent phone conversation between the world leaders, but he did not believe it was important or credible enough to do so.
“We had a call talking about nuclear proliferation, which is a very big subject,” he said. “They would like to do something and so would I.
“But we did not discuss (the bounties issue.) It never reached my desk, because intelligence (officials) didn’t think it was real. If it had reached my desk, I would have done something about it.”
Numerous Democrats on Capitol Hill have called for additional briefings on the allegations regarding Russian support for the Taliban and Trump’s reaction, saying the issue too serious to ignore.
When asked more generally about Russian support for Afghanistan-based forces hostile towards American troops, Trump noted that the United States gave weapons to groups like the Taliban in the past, when they were battling Soviet Union forces occupying Afghanistan.
“Russia doesn’t want anything to do with Afghanistan now,” he said. “Russia used to be the Soviet Union. Because of Afghanistan, they went bankrupt. The last thing Russia wants to do is get involved with Afghanistan. They did that once and it didn’t work out.”
The president also dismissed criticism that he doesn’t spend enough time studying intelligence and military briefings sent to the White House daily.
“I read a lot. I comprehend extraordinary well, probably better than anyone you have interviewed in a long time,” he said.
Ten U.S. service members have been killed in hostile fire incidents in Afghanistan in the last 12 months.
The full Axios interview with Trump is scheduled to be released on Monday.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.