Pompeo insists he raised Taliban 'bounties' on US troops with Russia despite Trump not doing so

President has repeatedly downplayed reported Russian bounty scheme as 'fake news'

Griffin Connolly
Washington
Thursday 30 July 2020 15:15 BST
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Trump says he did not discuss reports of Russia paying Taliban to kill US troops in phone call with Putin last week

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured lawmakers on Thursday that the Trump administration has confronted top Russian diplomats and military officers about the alleged bounties Russia has offered Taliban-linked rebels to kill American troops in Afghanistan — even though Donald Trump has refused to bring the topic up with his counterpart Vladimir Putin.

"I can assure you and the American people that each time I've spoken with [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov, I have raised all of the issues that put any American interests at risk, whether it's our soldiers on the ground in Syria, soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan, the activities that are taking place in Libya, the actions in Ukraine," Mr Pompeo testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"Each and every one of these [issues] that potentially threaten American interests are things that I raise in my conversations with Foreign Minister Lavrov, and I speak with him with some frequency," he said.

Mr Trump said earlier this week he has “never discussed” reports of alleged Russian bounties on US troops in Afghanistan with Vladimir Putin, despite having reportedly spoken with the Russian president on at least eight occasions since the intelligence was reportedly included in his daily briefing.

In February, the president's daily written brief included an intelligence report that Russia may have been placing bounties on the heads of US troops, with payments of up to $100,000, the New York Times has reported.

When Axios asked Mr Trump this week whether he had raised the issue in his most recent phone call with Mr Putin, he said he had not.

“That was a phone call to discuss other things, and frankly, that’s an issue that many people said was fake news,” Mr Trump said.

He later added: “I have never discussed it with him, no.”

Mr Pompeo would not criticise Mr Trump for neglecting to mention the issue with Mr Putin, saying he would “leave it to the president what he wants to say to other leaders”.

The secretary declined to provide details about his conversations with Mr Lavrov, citing national security concerns and the need to protect classified information. But he assured a sceptical Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations panel, that he was far from the only US official to challenge his Russian counterpart on the alleged Taliban bounty scheme, which Mr Trump has repeatedly downplayed as "fake news" cooked up by Democrats to hamper his re-election chances this November.

"Make no mistake about it, the proper people have been aware of every single threat to our soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan, whether that was [General Austin S] Miller, or my team at the embassy there in Kabul," Mr Pompeo said, referring to the US general in charge of NATO forces in Afghanistan.

"Anytime there was a tactical threat on the lives or the health and safety and security or our assets in place, we have raised this with our Russian counterparts. Not only at my level, but [US Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan], and everyone on our team that interacts with the Russians. We've made very clear our expectations," Mr Pompeo said.

The secretary asserted on Thursday that the Trump administration has been historically ironclad in its resistance to Russian foreign policy and military aggression.

"We're the toughest administration ever on Russia," he said, adding that the US "won’t tolerate disinformation and propaganda directed by the Kremlin or other adversaries".

But just this week in his interview with Axios, Mr Trump parroted a Kremlin propaganda talking point about Russia not wanting anything to do with Afghanistan after its war there in the 1980s crippled the former Soviet Union, leading to its demise.

"Russia used to be a thing called the Soviet Union. Because of Afghanistan they went bankrupt. They became Russia, just so you do understand," Mr Trump said.

"The last thing that Russia wants is to get too much involved with Afghanistan," he said, despite the alleged bounty scheme and the fact Russia has actively supplied US enemies in Afghanistan with weaponry.

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