Russia Paid For The Killing Of U.S. Troops. What Did Trump Know — And When?

Here’s what you need to know about stunning new reporting that the Russian military offered cash bounties for the killing of American troops in Afghanistan.

(left) U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks at a Keep America Great rally in Phoenix, Arizona, on February 19, 2020. (right) Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a WWII ceremony in Jerusalem on January 23, 2020. (Photo by JIM WATSON,EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images)
(left) U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks at a Keep America Great rally in Phoenix, Arizona, on February 19, 2020. (right) Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a WWII ceremony in Jerusalem on January 23, 2020. (Photo by JIM WATSON,EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images)

President Trump is denying explosive claims that he ignored critical U.S. intelligence about the Russian military offering paid bounties for the killings of American troops in Afghanistan, despite multiple news reports that say White House officials were briefed on it as early as March 2019. Trump tweeted Wednesday that the story is “just another HOAX!” after White House officials for days obfuscated their responses and  Congressional members demanded a clear investigation. 

According to investigative reports published within the last week in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the AP, members of a Russian military intelligence unit offered cash payments to Taliban fighters if they killed U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. All three news outlets reported that Trump was alerted to the intel in early 2019, which the White House has denied. 

According to the Post and the Times, the bounty plot led to the deaths of multiple U.S. service members in Afghanistan. Two mothers of slain soldiers who died in attacks in 2019 that could be related to the offered bounties spoke to CNBC and said they want answers.

Felicia Arculeo’s son Cpl. Robert Hendriks was killed in an April 2019 attack in Afghanistan, not long after the White House received intel briefings on the bounties. She told CNBC “the parties who are responsible should be held accountable, if that’s even possible.” She also said that since the latest reports on the bounties were published, U.S. intelligence and military officials have yet to contact her.

Shawn Gregoire’s son, Army Spc. Michael Isaiah Nance, was killed in July 2019 along with another soldier in an “insider attack”—meaning it came from an Afghan soldier whom the U.S. military was training. Gregoire told CNBC that she still hasn’t received an “after action report” about her son’s death. The military frequently uses such reports to analyze what happened in an incident, why it happened, and how to prevent a similar event in the future.

“What was pretty devastating to me was this were the questions [I] have: who is this person, why did he do it? To not have this report and to wake up and [see the news about the bounties], I feel somebody should have warned me,” Gregoire said.

What did Trump know about the bounties?

Trump and White House officials have said repeatedly in recent days that they were not aware of the intelligence. But other officials told the New York Times that in addition to the March 2019 briefing, information about the bounties was included in a presidential daily briefing on February 27, 2020. Trump, who has a well-documented history of not reading his briefings and often grows bored with in-person briefings, was hosting former Fox personalities Diamond and Silk at the White House that day in February. 

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) criticized the president for his evident priorities in a tweet.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden also harshly criticized the president the day after the first reports broke, and pointed to Trump’s long history of cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The U.S. president has had at least six phone calls with Putin since the reported Feb. 27 briefing.

“Not only has he failed to sanction or impose any kind of consequences on Russia with this egregious violation of international law, Donald Trump has continued his embarrassing campaign of deference and debasing himself before Vladimir Putin,” Biden said at a livestreamed town hall on June 27. “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, but this is beyond the pale. It's a betrayal of the most sacred duty we bear as a nation to protect and equip our troops. And we send them into harm’s way.”

Biden, whose late son Beau served in the U.S. Army in Iraq, was often focused on U.S. troops in Afghanistan when he served as vice president. He made multiple trips to visit troops there and still carries a card with him that shows the number of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, updated daily.

What are members of Congress saying?

Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) said on CNN that the reports are “extremely alarming.” 

“It’s hard for me to believe that the president didn’t have knowledge about this—that he didn’t know about it and that folks that are advising him on a daily basis would not have made him aware of this,” Castro continued. “And if that’s the case, and he’s continued to argue for Russia to be part of the G7, continued to try to placate Vladimir Putin, that really is—I mean, it’s treasonous. It’s treasonous to do that to our armed forces, to the men and women who serve our country.” 

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), an Iraq War veteran, addressed Trump’s denials on the Senate floor. “‘I didn’t know that our adversary was helping kill American troops because no one told me’ is not an excuse for the commander-in-chief of the greatest military on Earth,” Duckworth said. “It is, in fact, a confession of incompetence.”

Both parties have criticized the White House over its handling of this issue.

Though Republican elected officials are less direct than their Democratic colleagues, many have been clear about how they think the U.S. should respond to Russia. Acknowledging that “there was intelligence reported on the allegation that the Russians were offering a bounty to the Taliban to kill Americans,” Rep. Mike McCaul (R-TX) said the U.S. should take “swift and serious action” against Russia if it’s true. McCaul is the highest-ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. 

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) told reporters “America’s adversaries should know, they should have no doubt, that any targeting of U.S. forces by Russia, by anyone else, should face a very swift and deadly response,” according to the Washington Post. The Post also quoted two senior administration officials Wednesday night, reporting that “the White House is not planning an immediate response to intelligence reports...because President Trump does not believe the reports are true or ‘actionable.’”

Republican senators are also willing to take on Putin, in a contrast from the president. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) has a bill proposing that the State Department “consider naming Russia a State Sponsor of Terrorism.”

“From propping up the murderous Assad regime and our enemies in Afghanistan, Putin’s Russia has made clear they are no friend to the United States,” Gardner, who is up for re-election in November, tweeted. “They’ve targeted our institutions and our troops – the US must respond.” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), also up for re-election this year, supports the bill:

What has Russia said?

A Russian government spokesman has dismissed reports of the bounties, and Russian embassy accounts tweeted out #BlameRussia in response to the story, a sarcastic hashtag often used in attempts to downplay negative stories about the Kremlin. The Taliban also denied involvement. In an analysis for the Washington Post, reporter Aaron Blake observed “The only people dismissing the Russia bounties intel [are] the Taliban, Russia and Trump.”

The reliability of the reporting

Some of the elected GOP officials are hedging their statements on “if” the intelligence is true, though it has been confirmed by several different sources. Subsequent reporting by the Times has revealed that American officials “intercepted electronic data showing large financial transfers from a bank account controlled by Russia’s military intelligence agency to a Taliban-linked account.” U.S. investigators and Afghan officials have also identified Afghans who were part of the operation, including a contractor who acted as “the key middleman” between Russia and Taliban-linked fighters, handing out “Russian cash to kill Americans.”

Regardless of whether President Trump knew before this week of the bounties—and there’s plenty of evidence that he did—some of his own former advisers have deemed his latest response inadequate.

“The fact that the President feels compelled to tweet about the news story here shows that what his fundamental focus is, is not the security of our forces, but whether he looks like he wasn't paying attention,” former national security adviser John Bolton said on NBC’s “Meet The Press” on June 28. “So he's saying, 'Nobody told me, so therefore you can't blame me,’” echoing the Democratic Sen. Duckworth’s comments. Bolton has been promoting his recently published book, “The Room Where It Happened,” which has other revelations about Trump’s self-interested approach to U.S. foreign policy and national security. 

Gregoire, one of the mothers whose son died in Afghanistan, expressed a similar sentiment to Bolton. “Even if he was not briefed, what’s happening now?” she said to CNBC. “What are you doing now, now that you know? This is still an issue. We still have women and men over there sacrificing their lives.”

Trump’s history with Russia

Trump has repeatedly sided with Russia over the U.S. intelligence community during his time as president. He’s been dismissive of Russian’s proven meddling in U.S. elections in 2016, 2018, and has been reluctant to take reports of 2020 interference seriously. Seventeen U.S. intelligence agencies, as well as the GOP-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee, have confirmed that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. 

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said in a statement, “Unlike every previous administration I’ve ever worked with, the Trump administration has been shockingly weak-kneed when it comes to authoritarian leaders like Putin.”

“This administration appears unwilling to even acknowledge the gravity of the situation; unwilling to even express concern about these rumors and commit to investigating them,” Schumer said.

As recently as June 3, Trump has sought to readmit Russia to the G7, to the dismay of other G7 countries.