WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump said he never questioned Russian leader Vladimir Putin about U.S. intelligence reports that Moscow paid the Taliban to kill American troops in Afghanistan, casting doubt on the reports in an interview.
Trump, who has sought to cultivate warmer relations with Moscow, has said he was not briefed on the matter before it emerged in news media in late June. He has called the reports a hoax and casts doubt on them.
“I have never discussed it with him,” Trump said in an interview on Tuesday with “Axios on HBO.”
Russia has denied the reports.
Asked why he did not confront Putin on the issue in their call last Thursday, Trump told Axios, “That was a phone call to discuss other things, and frankly that’s an issue that many people said was fake news.”
He said he and the Russian president discussed nuclear nonproliferation in that phone call.
As he left the White House later on Wednesday, Trump made clear he did not believe the report.
“If it were true, I’d be very angry about it. But if you tell me they’re doing it, I would certainly take that under consideration,” he said. “I would respond appropriately.”
Democrats in Congress have accused Trump, a Republican who is seeking re-election in November, of not taking intelligence information concerning soldiers’ deaths seriously enough. They have pressed for more information from the intelligence community and the White House.
Trump has been dogged by criticism that he was too friendly toward Moscow since taking office. The U.S. intelligence community found that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election to boost his chances of winning the White House. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report last year determined his campaign had numerous contacts with Russian officials but that there was not enough evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy.
National security adviser Robert O’Brien has said Trump was not verbally briefed on the Russian bounty intelligence because his CIA briefer concluded the reports were uncorroborated.
‘NEVER REACHED MY DESK’
White House officials have not denied the information was included in the President’s Daily Brief, a daily summary of classified information and analysis on national security. Some news outlets reported the issue was included in the brief in February but that Trump may not have read it.
“It never reached my desk. You know why? Because they didn’t think - intelligence, they didn’t think it was real,” Trump told Axios. “I wouldn’t mind - if it reached my desk, I would have done something about it.”
Trump has spoken to Putin at least eight times since the intelligence was first included in his briefing, Axios said.
Senator Angus King, an independent who sits on the intelligence committee, said he found Trump’s comments astonishing. While he could not discuss specifics, King said he was confident the bounty reports were not “fake news.”
“I don’t know what could be more important than the Russians providing incentives to take the lives of Americans,” he told MSNBC. “I don’t have any explanation except that it’s part of a pattern that is no surprise to anybody that the president has been very reluctant to cross President Putin.”
Trump has said many intelligence officials doubted the report’s veracity, a stance contradicted by four U.S. and European sources and by its inclusion in a widely read CIA report in May.
The New York Times first reported in June that U.S. intelligence had concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit had offered the Taliban payments of up to $100,000 for each U.S. or allied soldier killed.
Trump told Axios he does read the daily intelligence briefing.
“I read it a lot, you know, I read a lot. They like to say I don’t read. I read a lot,” he said.
Excerpts from the interview were released on Wednesday. It will be broadcast in full on Monday.
Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Alexandra Alper; Editing by Howard Goller, Steve Orlofsky, Gareth Jones and Jonathan Oatis
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