President Donald Trump said in an interview this week that he has not brought up allegations that Russia issued bounties for the killing of American troops in Afghanistan with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Trump last spoke with Putin on July 23.
“That was a phone call to discuss other things,” Trump told Axios on Tuesday. “Frankly, that’s an issue that many people said was fake news.”
Trump added later: “I have never discussed it with him. We would, I'd have no problem with it.”
The president earlier this week declined to share specifics on what he and Putin talked about.
“We don’t talk about what we discussed, but we had plenty of discussion, and I think it was very productive,” he told reporters at the White House.
The discussion with his counterpart centered on nuclear proliferation, Trump said in the interview.
“Nobody ever brings up China. They always bring [up] Russia, Russia, Russia. If we can do something with Russia in terms of nuclear proliferation, which is a very big problem—bigger problem than global warming, a much bigger problem than global warming, in terms of the real world—that can be a good thing,” he said.
The intelligence on possible bounties “never reached my desk,” he added. “You know why? Because they—intelligence—didn’t think it was real, they didn’t think it was worthy. If it reached my desk, I would’ve done something about it.”
The intelligence signaled Russia might have offered bounties to kill American and coalition forces in Afghanistan. Because officials were still working on verifying the raw intelligence, a CIA employee made the decision not to brief Trump.
“She made that decision because she didn’t have confidence in the intelligence that came up,” national security adviser Robert O’Brien told reporters on July 1.
“She made that call. And you know what? I think she made the right call, so I’m not going to criticize her. Knowing the facts that I know now, I stand behind that call.”
The intelligence was classified but leaked to news outlets. The selective leaking makes it difficult to verify the allegations, intelligence officials said.
“The illegal leaks are terrible. They’re happening across the government, particularly in the Defense Department,” he said.
According to data from the White House, the number of classified leaks surged after Trump took office, from 39 per year on average to 104 on average.
Anonymously sourced news reports claimed the intelligence was not verbally briefed to Trump but was included in the presidential daily briefing. That has not been confirmed. Trump said in the new interview that he reads the briefing.
A spokesman for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s campaign said it was “despicable” that Trump didn’t raise the allegations with Putin.
“The most critical and sacred obligation of a commander-in-chief is to protect those who serve our nation in harm’s way,” Andrew Bates, the spokesman, said in a statement to news outlets. “But months after the U.S. intelligence community sounded the alarm—to Donald Trump and our allies—that Russia was placing bounties on the heads of American servicemen and women in a warzone, our president continues to turn his back on those who put their lives on the line for our country, and on his own duty,”
The Trump campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Trump told reporters on Wednesday that he'd be “very angry” about the allegations if they’re true.
“I would respond appropriately. Nobody has been tougher on Russia. Nobody has been tougher on China. Nobody has been tougher on Iran than me, and it’s not even close. And everybody knows this,” he said.