President Donald Trump did not ask President Vladimir Putin whether Russian operatives in Afghanistan had paid Taliban-affiliated militants bounties to kill American soldiers, Trump said in a new interview, dismissing a scenario backed by U.S. intelligence as “fake news.”
Trump made the comments in an interview on Tuesday with Axios scheduled to air on HBO next week. Portions of it were released early Wednesday.
Trump spoke by telephone last week with Putin, but during a public appearance on Monday declined to say whether he had raised the bounty issue.
“We don’t talk about what we discussed, but we had plenty of discussion,” he said.
But Trump was more direct when pressed by Axios reporter Jonathan Swan. “That was a phone call to discuss other things, and frankly that’s an issue that many people said was fake news,” Trump said.
“If it reached my desk, I would have done something about it,” he said, adding: “I comprehend extraordinarily well.” He did not elaborate on what action he would have taken.
Trump said the purpose of last week’s call with Putin was “to discuss nuclear proliferation,” calling that issue “a much bigger problem than global warming.”
Asked directly about the bounties, Trump said, “I have never discussed it with him.” Trump has spoken to the Russian leader numerous times in recent months.
Although Trump cast the bounty allegation as a media fiction, U.S. intelligence analysts found evidence of the scheme credible, although some intelligence officials have higher confidence on the question than others. The intelligence was provided to Trump in a written briefing in February, but it is unclear whether he read it.
Trump told Axios that the issue “never reached my desk” because intelligence officials “didn’t think it was real.”
Trump has long taken pains not to personally criticize Putin, despite generally hostile relations between Washington and Moscow, and even seemed intent on downplaying evidence of broader Russian military and financial support for the Taliban.
Asked about claims to that effect by the former top U.S. general in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson Jr., Trump dismissed the notion. “I didn’t ask Nicholson about that,” he said, adding that the general “didn’t have great success” in his command, which ended in 2018.
Trump also suggested that Russian backing for the Taliban would be a kind of understandable payback for America’s backing of fighters opposing the Soviet occupation of that country during the 1980s.
“Well, we supplied weapons when they were fighting Russia, too,” Trump said.
In an interview with the BBC in 2018, Nicholson, then the commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, said publicly that the Russians were sending weapons to the Taliban.
The accusation came after months of American officials quietly asserting the insurgent group was receiving support from the Kremlin under the guise of countering the newly assertive Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan’s east.
Nicholson never provided any hard evidence of Russia’s interference, though Russian officials have long had connections to Afghan militias and other armed groups following the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
U.S. officials believe Russia has made inroads with the Taliban as the Russians believe the Taliban will be a major player in Afghanistan following any peace negotiations and the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops in the coming months.