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President Trump has never confronted Vladimir Putin with intelligence indicating Russia paid the Taliban to kill U.S. troops, he told “Axios on HBO” in an interview on Tuesday. 

Why it matters: Democrats have seized on the issue, and Trump's reluctance to discuss it, as evidence he’s unwilling to challenge Putin even when American lives are at stake.

  • Trump spoke with Putin on Thursday, and subsequently deflected a question about whether he’d raised the alleged bounty scheme, saying on Monday: “We don't talk about what we discussed, but we had plenty of discussion.”

In Tuesday’s interview, he was definitive:

“I have never discussed it with him.”

Pressed on why he didn’t raise the matter in Thursday’s call, he said: “That was a phone call to discuss other things, and frankly that’s an issue that many people said was fake news.”

  • Trump has spoken to Putin at least eight times since intelligence about the alleged Russian bounties was reportedly included in the President's Daily Brief — his written intelligence briefing — in late February.
  • Trump’s team says he was not verbally briefed on the matter before a June 26 report from the New York Times brought the controversy out into the open.

Between the lines: There's no clear consensus within the intelligence community about the strength of the evidence that Russia paid the bounties — though that's not the case when it comes to Russia's broader support for the Taliban.

  • In 2018, Gen. John Nicholson, then the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, accused Russia of providing money and arms to the group, saying, "we know that the Russians are involved."
  • Trump told “Axios on HBO” that he was not aware of Nicholson’s comments, and said evidence that Russia was aiding the Taliban “never reached my desk.”

The backstory: The New York Times reported in June that U.S. intelligence had concluded “months ago” that an infamous Russian military intelligence unit had offered payments for each U.S. or allied soldier killed.

  • Those payments were funneled through middlemen and could run as high as $100,000, according to the Times.
  • The White House claimed that Trump had not been briefed on the matter because the intelligence was inconclusive. 
  • Multiple outlets subsequently reported that the intelligence was included in the PDB, but that Trump may not have read it.
  • Trump insisted in the interview that he does read the PDB — “they like to say I don’t read, I read a lot” — but stood by the claim that the matter “never reached my desk” because U.S. intelligence “didn’t think it was real.”

While the CIA appears to have concluded months ago that Russia did offer the bounties, the NSA reportedly disagreed.

  • However, several former national security officials have questioned the rationale for not briefing Trump about such a serious issue, even if the intelligence was not rock solid. 
  • The Kremlin and the Taliban have, unsurprisingly, denied the existence of any bounty scheme. 

This issue has featured in Democratic attacks in the lead-up to November’s election.

  • Joe Biden accused Trump of “dereliction of duty,” claiming he either wasn’t briefed on a life-and-death matter, or “was briefed and nothing was done about this.”
  • Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who has been considered a potential Biden running mate, has been updating a tally of how many days Trump has gone without challenging Russia on the matter.

Flashback: Suspicions of Russian support for the Taliban have swirled within the U.S. intelligence community since Barack Obama’s second term, though firm intelligence — including on any bounty scheme — didn’t come until later, Axios contributor Zach Dorfman reports.

What to watch: The Taliban and U.S. signed a deal in February aiming to bring U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan to an end after nearly two decades. Trump insists the U.S. will move ahead with its withdrawal, though the intra-Afghan peace process that was to precede an American exit has repeatedly broken down.

The full interview will air Monday, August 3, 2020 at 11 p.m. ET/PT on all HBO platforms.

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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

After months of a grueling campaign season, some swing voters around Florida are desperately searching for an end to this cycle — even if it means accepting a President Biden win after they voted for President Trump.

Why it matters: Fatigue over the level of political outreach and content they've been inundated with during this race — as well as fear that there will be extreme civil unrest no matter who wins — is pushing these voters to accept a president they don't even want if it means the chaos will end.

Ohio sues Biden admin over reversal of Trump-era abortion referral ban

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Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration Monday over a Trump-era ban on abortion referrals that President Biden overturned earlier this month.

The big picture: The lawsuit aims to reinstate two measures included in the 2019 legislation that required federally funded family planning clinics to be "financially independent of abortion clinics," and refrain from referring patients for abortions.

Oklahoma Supreme Court temporarily blocks abortion restrictions

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The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Monday temporarily blocked three abortion restrictions set to take effect on Nov. 1.

Why it matters: The laws would place new limits on medication-induced abortions and require doctors who perform abortions to attain board certification in obstetrics and gynecology.