Since the Watergate era, presidential scandals have often boiled down to two questions: What did the president know, and when did he know it? Those questions are especially urgent regarding reports that Russia offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants in Afghanistan to kill American soldiers there.
President Donald Trump claims he wasn’t told of that allegation by U.S. intelligence. If he’s lying — always a strong possibility with this president — it means he has continued his kid-glove treatment of Russian leader Vladimir Putin even knowing his culpability in targeting Americans. If Trump is telling the truth, it means his own administration withheld information from him that any president should immediately have been told.
There’s a third scenario that, knowing this president, actually sounds the most likely: That Trump was indeed informed about the bounties, via the daily written intelligence briefing that presidents receive, and that he simply failed to read it. That would constitute a gross dereliction of duty but would be completely in keeping with Trump’s well-known aversion to reading. Whatever the case, Congress must not stop pressing for answers.
The New York Times late last week first reported that Russia secretly offered bounties to militants to kill American troops in Afghanistan, and that the administration has known about it since early this year. Subsequent reporting linked those alleged bounties to the deaths of three U.S. Marines in an April 2019 car bomb attack.
Even as Trump continued to deny he’d been told anything, the Times on Monday cited two unnamed officials who said the information about the bounties was in the President’s Daily Brief as early as late February.
If it seems unlikely that officials would put such explosive information in writing for Trump, yet fail to verbally point it out to him, consider two well-documented foibles of this president: his bizarre, consistent fealty to Putin (even over U.S. intelligence, as Trump so shamefully demonstrated in Helsinki in 2018); and such a stubborn refusal to delve into written documents that it has spawned speculation about Trump’s literacy. Some have suggested that the Russian bounty might well have been intentionally buried in Trump’s intelligence briefing because, as New York Magazine recently put it, “everybody knows he doesn’t read,” and his staff knew from experience “not to broach the topic of Russian misconduct with the boss.”
Horrifying as it is that American lives may have been put at risk due to such presidential incompetence, it’s actually the least-damning explanation. If Trump did in fact know about the bounties, and still failed to punish or even call out Putin, that’s stronger grounds for removal from office than even the ironclad case already made against him during his impeachment.
What did Trump know, and when did he know it? Congress, and America, need answers.
Views from the editorial board, opinions from guest and national columnists plus the latest letters from our readers.