Washington — President Trump revealed that during a recent phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he did not raise the reportedabout a Russian military spy unit offering bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
"No, that was a phone call to discuss other things," Mr. Trump told "Axios on HBO" in an interview Tuesday, adding "I have never discussed it with him."
The president said the reported Russian operation was "an issue that many people said was fake news," and pointed to "some of the wonderful folks from the Bush administration" as doubting the intelligence. Speaking to reporters at the White House on Wednesday, Mr. Trump referenced former Secretary of State Colin Powell as one who cast doubt on the intelligence. Powell told MSNBC earlier this month "our military commanders on the ground did not think that it was as serious a problem as the newspapers were reporting and television was reporting."
"It got kind of out of control before we really had an understanding of what had happened," Powell said. "I'm not sure we fully understand now."
Mr. Trump and Putin spoke by phone July 23 and the president told "Axios on HBO" they discussed nuclear proliferation. A readout of the call distributed by the White House said the two world leaders also talked about the coronavirus pandemic, as well as "critical bilateral and global issues." The White House said Mr. Trump "reiterated his hope of avoiding an expensive three-way arms race between China, Russia and the United States."
The president's admission comes after he refused to divulge whether he discussed the Russian scheme with Putin when asked about the call Monday. Mr. Trump told reporters during a trip to Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies in North Carolina that "we don't talk about what we discussed" but called the conversation with Russia's president "very productive."
Press reports on the Russians offering cash payments to Taliban-linked soldiers for killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan first emerged in late June and prompted questions from Capitol Hill about whether Mr. Trump knew of the intelligence about the efforts.
But the Trump administration's top national security and intelligence officials, including National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, said neither the president nor vice president were briefed on the Russian bounty intelligence because it was not verified by the intelligence community. The New York Times and Associated Press, however, reported the information was included in Mr. Trump's written intelligence briefings.
Mr. Trump reiterated to Axios that the intelligence "never reached my desk" because of questions about its veracity and said if it had," I would've done something about it."
When asked whether he reads his briefing book, known as the President's Daily Brief, the president said he "reads a lot" and attends in-person intelligence briefings at least twice a week.