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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