Saturday, June 27, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said nobody ever told him about the Russian plot to have American troops murdered in Afghanistan.

Yesterday, the New York Times broke a shocking story: that U.S. intelligence agencies had uncovered a Russian scheme to pay bounties on American troops in Afghanistan. According to the report—now independently confirmed by several news agencies—American spy agencies caught a Russian military intelligence unit offering to pay Taliban militants to kill Americans, in order to derail the peace process and further bog the United States down.

Twenty Americans were killed last year in Afghanistan, and the peace talks have broken down. Russia reportedly paid some of the bounties, indicating that the Putin regime believed the deaths were related to their offer.

The plot was detected in late March. Since then, Trump has spoken with Russian president Vladimir Putin five times and issued a joint diplomatic statement about U.S.-Russia military cooperation. He's also lobbied on Russia's behalf to rejoin the G7, and demanded alarmingly Russia-friendly troop redeployments in Europe. No action whatsoever was taken, internally or diplomatically, against Russia.

Trump dodged the story yesterday, and spent the morning and afternoon today playing golf. When the White House finally released a statement, it claimed that nobody had told Trump about it.

That is contradicted by all other sources so far, which report that it was discussed in the National Security Council, the agency whose job it is to keep Trump informed. The idea that American troops could be assassinated by a Russian spy agency without the president being informed is, to put it mildly, ridiculous. As David Gergen, a senior advisor to four presidents, put it today:

He would have been — in every single White House that I’ve ever worked in, and every single White House I know anything about. This is very, very important information. It does affect the relationship with Russia. He would have been briefed instantaneously. It would have been in the materials sent in to him, and it would have been discussed with him. And I think Vice President Biden makes a very good point, what is raising so many objections on Capitol Hill is that this was in the same timeframe the president has extended an olive branch to Putin, inviting him to this G-7 meeting over the objections of Chancellor Merkel and others who do not want that to happen. The president stood up for him. 
And so all of that suggests that this is a much more complicated story. What we’re possibly facing is that the White House was, the president was briefed but that he had reasons relating to his reelection and his relationship with Russia that he’s being very dovish about this.

It's entirely possible that Trump didn't understand what he was being told, or couldn't focus long enough to take action. His notoriously short attention span has been an enormous challenge for his intelligence briefers, who have struggled to keep him engaged long enough to get through one-page summaries. (One tactic that has had some success is using Trump's name frequently.)

It's also possible that Trump understood the situation in basic terms—Russia was paying the Taliban to kill American soldiers—but was simply unable or unwilling to act against Russia. It's difficult to quickly summarize the financial, criminal, and political leverage that the Putin regime has over Trump, but it appears to have completely paralyzed him.

Why does this matter?

  • A president this compromised by a hostile country—or by mental issues—is totally unfit for office.
  • The lives of American troops are more important than whatever interests Donald Trump is protecting.