Another day, another scandal engulfing the Trump administration. This time, the White House is mired in a fresh controversy after the New York Times reported that US intelligence had alerted President Donald Trump that Russian intelligence had authorized bounties to the Taliban to target American soldiers and that the president chose not to respond.
The reaction by congressional leaders to the revelation was instantaneous and swift. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other leading Democrats demanded that fresh sanctions be imposed on Moscow.
But Democrats were not the only ones demanding answers. Rep. Liz Cheney, who appears to be trying to distance herself from Trump, demanded that the White House explain why nothing was done. The Lincoln Project ran an advertisement with a Russian voiceover calling Trump an agent of the Kremlin.
Trump’s response to the bombshell report was that the bounties were part of a deep state hoax aided by the New York Times. It was the Russia investigation all over again. He declared on Twitter.
“The Russia Bounty story is just another made up by Fake News tale that is told only to damage me and the Republican Party. The secret source probably does not even exist, just like the story itself. If the discredited @nytimes has a source, reveal it. Just another HOAX!”
The White was blindsided by the initial story. But as it began to fight back, another memo was leaked to the New York Times. The memo was drafted to defend the administration on July 1. It says the CIA and the National Counterterrorism Center had “medium confidence” that a GRU unit was handing out bounties to the Taliban.
The document seeks to emphasize the uncertainties, doubts, and general haze surrounding any accusations of Russian perfidy in Afghanistan. But the new memo apparently wants to shift the burden of proof on the bounty issue from the administration to its accusers.
The larger issue is that Trump has never made a sustained case for improving relations with Russia. He’s talked about it. He’s met with Vladimir Putin. He’s calling to expand the G-7 to include Russia. But he takes no practical action. In fact, his own administration is staffed with officials who don’t share his views, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is a well-known Russia hawk. So is National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien.
When it comes to Russia policy, Trump has unequivocally failed both abroad and at home. And while the bounty story has not been a political knockout blow to Trump, it has left him wounded and weak.
The upsurge of anger over the bounty issue demonstrates that if Trump loses the election this fall, the GOP would promptly return to its openly hostile stance, denouncing Joe Biden for being soft on Russia.