President Donald Trump’s administration insisted Wednesday it has been firm with Russia over Afghanistan but kept open the door to inviting President Vladimir Putin for a summit.
Washington has been in uproar in the aftermath of the New York Times (NYT) story in which it was reported that US intelligence believed a Russian unit paid bounties for Taliban-linked militants to kill US troops.
Aftermath of NYT story: Trump, Pompeo say it is nothing new
Trump again denied reports that he had been briefed, saying the intelligence was not strong enough to warrant telling the president.
“I think it’s a hoax by the newspapers and the Democrats,” he told the Fox Business Network.
“I think, frankly, that many of the intelligence people didn’t think it was something that even happened,” he said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said it was “nothing new” that Russia has been acting against US interests in Afghanistan — but defended how the administration had responded.
“We took this seriously; we handle it appropriately,” Pompeo, a former CIA chief and stalwart Trump ally, said without commenting on the intelligence.
“The Russians have been selling small arms that have put Americans at risk there for 10 years. We have objected to it,” he told a news conference.
“When we see credible information that suggests that the Russians are putting American lives at risk, we’re responding in a way that is serious.”
Pompeo says ready to receive Putin in USA
But Pompeo did not rule out welcoming Putin to the United States.
Trump mused last month about inviting the Russian leader to an expanded summit of the Group of Seven industrial democracies — which kicked out Russia over its 2014 takeover of Crimea.
Trump “gets to decide if he wants him to come to a summit or not. That’s his decision,” Pompeo told reporters.
“I’ll certainly leave that to him. But I do believe it is absolutely important that we have more frequent engagement with the Russians.”
Pompeo said that the United States meets with Russia to “convince them to change some of the activities” that go against US interests.
Trump has repeatedly voiced hope for better relations with Putin, Russia’s paramount leader for two decades who on Wednesday appeared to win a constitutional referendum that could keep him in power until 2036.
Aftermath of NYT story: Republicans alarmed at Trump’s nonchalance
Trump’s stance has alarmed even some members of his Republican Party, which has traditionally advocated a hard line on Russia.
Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Wednesday proposed sanctions over the purported bounty program.
In an amendment offered to a massive defense spending bill, the United States would freeze the assets and ban visas for Putin, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and other Russian officials if they are found to be involved in offering rewards to kill troops of the US-led coalition in Afghanistan.
“As more details continue to surface on this despicable Russian campaign, Donald Trump has proven once again that he is incapable of protecting our troops and our country,” Menendez said in a statement.
What was the controversial story by the New York Times?
In a piece “Trump Got Written Briefing in February on Possible Russian Bounties, Officials Say” in the New York Times newspaper, reporters alleged that the President was aware that Russia had put a bounty on hunting American soldiers in Afghanistan.
The New York Times, which first reported the alleged bounties, said that the intelligence was presented in February as part of a written daily briefing prepared for the president.
US media outlets say there is evidence a Russian military intelligence unit put out the alleged bounties on US soldiers last year – and the president was briefed about the matter. The New York Times also reports that militants are believed to have collected money from Russia as a result of successful attacks, but it’s not clear which troop deaths are under suspicion.
President Trump says he was never briefed and it’s all a hoax while Russia denies the claims and calls the reports fake news. Meanwhile, the Taliban rejects the allegation it took Russian cash to attack US soldiers.
The White House has said there is still debate over how credible these reports are in the intelligence community, but it appears some senior officials knew about these allegations.
Intelligence reports can make it to the president even if they’re unconfirmed – which they often are – and this one was also reportedly shared with allies, including the UK.
Trump has been widely reported to not pay close attention to the intelligence briefings.
The bounty allegations have been denied both by Russia and the Taliban, who signed a deal with the United States on February 29 under which it has stopped targeting coalition forces.
AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk
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