It takes a lot for news, especially foreign-policy news, to break through in the United States these days. Unable to control the rapidly spreading pandemic and in the midst of a historic reckoning over racism and policing, the country has little attention left for other things. So it is a testament to how shocking the Russian bounty story is that it immediately captured front-page headlines and spawned calls for congressional hearings.
In a story now confirmed by a range of media outlets, the New York Times revealed last week that several US intelligence agencies possessed credible evidence that the Russian government had offered to pay bounties to Taliban fighters who killed American or coalition forces in Afghanistan.
But the potential existence of these bounties pales in comparison with the administration’s indifference and inaction when faced with the news. And the story lays bare the many ways in which the Trump presidency has weakened the country’s geopolitical standing, leaving the United States — as well as Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia — in a far more precarious position than when Donald Trump took office.
US–Russian competition in the region didn’t begin with Trump. More than just a hangover of cold war conflict, the two countries’ tensions and divisions in the Middle East and Central Asia have been part of a great-power struggle in the post-Soviet era. In recent years Syria has been this struggle’s main proxy war, but Russia has also sold weaponry and engaged in other activities intended to keep the United States in its Afghanistan quagmire. (Russians, after all, know a thing or two about quagmires in Afghanistan.)
But if the information US intelligence agencies have is correct, then Russia has escalated its conflict with the United States in a significant and serious way — and it has done so without provoking any response from the US government.
That lack of response brings the story back to Donald Trump and the damage his administration has done to the United States. First and foremost is his insistence that he was never briefed on the bounties, despite reports that the intelligence had been included in the president’s daily brief, or PDB, a top-secret written compilation of intelligence analysis and information.
It is well known that Trump doesn’t read these briefs, and that he only pays partial attention to the oral briefings intelligence chiefs offer in an attempt to keep him informed.
Americans are understandably touchy about presidential indifference to the PDB. A memo in an August 2001 PDB, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US,” warned of the attacks that would occur a month later in New York and Washington, and many Americans believe president George W. Bush and his advisers were insufficiently responsive to the intelligence that memo contained.
In Donald Trump’s case, though, the problem goes beyond the danger created by his lack of curiosity. This particular story highlights fundamental weaknesses of the Trump administration that have little hope of being fixed so long as he’s in office.
The first is the administration’s hostility towards the intelligence community. That hostility stems from the intelligence community’s finding in 2017 that Russian president Vladimir Putin had “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election” in order to help Donald Trump get elected. Since then, Trump has engaged in a concerted effort to undermine the intelligence community, which he often derisively labels the “deep state.”
The intelligence community is not without its flaws — far from it. It deserves rigorous scrutiny and scepticism. But Donald Trump has not modelled that. Instead, he has opposed the intelligence community because it revealed something true and yet negative about his presidential bid: that he benefited from (indeed publicly invited) Russian interference. He doesn’t question the source and methods of intelligence gathering to uncover what is reliable; he believes that which is favourable to him and sees the rest as part of a deep-state coup attempt.
In the years that followed the 2017 report, he has paired his hostility towards the intelligence community with a deference towards Russia. He publicly agreed with Putin’s denials of election interference, siding with the Russian dictator over his own intelligence community’s finding; opposed stronger sanctions against Russia; called for a rollback of the NATO alliance; and has now invited Russia back into the G8, from which it was suspended after the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The bounty story reunites all these troubling dynamics. Once again, intelligence agencies have warned the Trump administration of a danger emanating from Russia. Once again, the president has embraced the Putin regime’s denials.
In the process, though, Trump has exacerbated some of the growing challenges to his hold on power. He has called the bounty scandal “a made up Fake News Media Hoax” — his go-to dismissal for stories he doesn’t like — but has offered no statement in support of the troops endangered by the bounties. Even if he didn’t believe the intelligence assessment, he could easily make a statement assuring deployed soldiers that the government has their backs. Yet: nothing.
His silence has strained his relationship with the military community, which was already in poor shape. Last month, military leaders in a rare public display criticised the administration’s use of the military against peaceful protesters, particularly the attack on protesters outside the White House as part of a presidential photo-op.
The bounty scandal has also laid bare the lack of trust in the administration. The president has repeatedly denied he was briefed on the bounties; the press secretary then haggled with reporters over the meaning of the word “briefed.” It’s important, I suppose, to get the administration on record, but there is no real reason to believe they are being honest. Trump and the administration officials who flack for him have been caught in so many lies in the past four years that most Americans are numb to it. There is no expectation of honesty from the administration; there is, in fact, a growing sense that the full scale of the administration’s corruption and dishonesty may never be fully known.
Finally, the scandal reaffirms that the president, for as long as he is in office, will continue to cede US authority and power to the Putin regime, empowering a nation that has been not only a geopolitical foe but also a threat to democracy and liberalism throughout the world. The US election, after all, is not the only one in which the Russian government has interfered. And the regime continues its assault on human rights and democratic autonomy.
One does not need to believe all the intricate theories about Trump’s ties, and potential vulnerabilities, to the Putin regime to understand the importance of the bounty story. Trump has a general affinity for Putinism — its authoritarian power, its unchecked corruption — and values his own political and personal fortunes over the wellbeing of the nation and its citizens. The bounties scandal has not revealed these dynamics; it has simply reminded Americans that they exist.
And in an election year, that is an important reminder. If the badly bungled pandemic response and the administration’s indifference to police violence were not enough, the bounty scandal reminds American voters that the current administration has also made the world a more dangerous place, empowering the nation’s geopolitical foes while weakening its alliances, and leaving American soldiers abroad without the support of their president, and now with a price on their heads. •