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Trump’s Russia bounty scandal exposes his fundamental inability to digest new information

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President Donald Trump speaking at the annual NRA convention in 2019. (Screenshot/YouTube)

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Terry H. Schwadron
Terry H. Schwadron

A couple of weeks have passed, with plenty of public smoke but no fire over reports that Russians were bribing the Taliban to target American troops in Afghanistan, with at least some of the 20 deaths over the last year attributed to the Islamic militants linked to the Taliban.

Donald Trump continues to say he never was told about these reports, despite inclusion in presidential briefing papers back in February, and has dismissed the matter as a “hoax,” along with Russian denials.

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Nevertheless, the intelligence waters keep churning–and no action is foreseen.

The important takeaway, however, remains unchanged: Intelligence reports say a Russian GRU military intelligence unit was paying militants to kill Americans, and weeks after these reports have surfaced, Trump has not done anything about it. Rather, Trump continues to support inviting Russian President Vladimir Putin to return in September to the G-7 table, a sign of restored respect over the objection of allies, after having been thrown out for invading Crimea and Ukraine.

And, as with coronavirus, Black Lives Matter and other issues of prime concern to the nation, this matter has been consigned to the world of partisan politics.

Here are a few developments since the initial reports in The New York Times.

–Lawmakers from both parties have demanded answers, and basically gotten few from the White House or the National Security Council, which contends that there was no widespread agreement or proof of the allegations.  House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md, said after a briefing that nothing he heard would suggest the intelligence reports were a hoax.

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–There have been additional reports of bank records showing movement of money and an Associated Press investigation showing knowledge of bounties in 2019, a full year earlier than known.  Former National Security Adviser John Bolton insists that he told Trump.

–The White House argues that unless there was proof, there was no need for Trump to know, skipping over the fact that this president declines to read intelligence reports. Meanwhile, the issue has become a part of the overall reelection debate, with Democrat Joe Biden arguing that Trump has been derelict in office.

–A Reuters poll finds that most Americans believe the intelligence reports and more than half want new sanctions against Russia. A parade of former intelligence officials have come forward to argue that normal practice would be to brief the president, and that if true that he was not briefed, that fact is almost worse than if Trump had tried to ignore the whole issue.

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Seeking Context

An article this week in JustSecurity.org, a group based at the Reiss Center on Law and Security at New York University School of Law, outlines a deep, strategic context for Trump’s silence. From mid-2017 and into 2018, the article says, Pentagon officials became increasingly confident in intelligence reports that the Kremlin was arming the Taliban, and posing a significant threat to American and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

Repeatedly, Trump declined to confront Putin about supplying arms to the Taliban, and publicly and privately undercut military and intelligence reporting about Russian aims, including at the notorious Helsinki press conference where he said he believed Putin over U.S. intelligence about Russian interference in U.S. elections.

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Further, JustSecurity said former officials say Trump ordered the sharing of U.S. counterterrorism intelligence reports with the Kremlin.  The theme of the article is that Russia, having encountered little resistance from Trump, continues to press harder to further its own goals, secure that Trump does not want to move against them.

This thesis, of course, was at the heart of the all-things-Russia probes of the last few years and of continuing political speculation about just why Trump appears to favor Russia over and over, despite the occasional, but repeated claim that his administration has been tough on Russia.

Where Are We?

“The heart of the criticism of President Trump’s handling of Russian bounty intelligence reports has been his lack of action toward Moscow to safeguard American troops threatened by Russia’s aggression,” concludes the article. A House Foreign Affairs Committee virtual hearing Thursday with former CIA director Michael Morell and retired Army Gen. John Nicholson, former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, is unlikely to change that.

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In Trump, we have a president who refuses to listen to intelligence briefings or take in other information about climate, economy, pandemic, hurricanes, among other topics that does not conform with his worldview. We have in Trump a candidate for re-election who does not want to recognize Russian or other foreign interference with the election processes or disinformation campaigns. We have a president who does not act to put protection of U.S. troops at the top of his to-do list.

Trump is reported by various polls to be losing support among veterans, among other groups, specifically over this issue. Instead, he is spending his time defending the names of U.S. military bases that honor Confederate generals or insisting on wide-open, mask-free gatherings for his personal benefit with no regard to public safety in a time of coronavirus.

The presidency is a complex, full-time job with real responsibilities. It deserves more than a part-time dilettante who prizes personal admiration over actual work.

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