The U.S. commander in chief spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone last week, but he did not raise the issue of claims that Russia has offered the Taliban bounties to kill American service members in Afghanistan.
President Donald Trump told Axios in an interview that will air on HBO that he has never spoken to Putin about reports alleging Russian bounties might be connected to the deaths of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, possibly including three Marines killed there in April 2019.
The July 23 phone call with Putin, Trump said, was "to discuss other things."
"A lot of people said it's a fake issue," Trump said of the reports about bounties. "We had a call talking about nuclear proliferation, which is a very big subject where [Russia] would like to do something and so do I."
The New York Times first reported in June that U.S. intelligence officers and special operators in Afghanistan warned their superiors earlier this year of a suspected Russian plot to pay members of the Taliban bounties to kill American troops. Several other media outlets confirmed the reporting from the Times, and the paper in a follow-up story reported that U.S. officials are investigating whether a Russian bounty was connected to the car bombing that killed Marine Staff Sgts. Benjamin Hines and Christopher Slutman, along with Sgt. Robert Hendriks.
That intelligence, Trump said, never reached his desk because "they didn't think it was real."
"If it reached my desk, I would've done something about it," he said. "It never reached my desk."
Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters July 21 that the Defense Department has not found corroborating evidence of a bounty program between Russia and the Taliban.
"Therefore, we do not have any proper evidence that indicates that there were any victims of an alleged bounty program," Hoffman said. "... We're going to continue to examine any information that comes in on this."
Now-retired Army Gen. John Nicholson, who commanded U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said in 2017 that Russia's actions in Afghanistan were complicating the situation there. Nicholson also said the Defense Department was getting reports of Russia sending weapons and supplies to insurgents.
Axios asked why that alone wasn't enough reason for Trump to confront Putin about Russia's actions in Afghanistan.
"We did that, too," Trump said of sending weapons during the 1980s Soviet War in Afghanistan. "I didn't ask Nicholson about that. He was [in Afghanistan] for a long time. He didn't have great success because he was there before me and then, ultimately, I made a change."
Trump did not answer a question from Axios about whether he himself believed the reports about the bounties.
"You know what's interesting? No one ever brings up China," he said. "It's always Russia, Russia, Russia."
Russia, Trump added, doesn't want anything to do with Afghanistan.
"Russia used to be a thing called the Soviet Union. Because of Afghanistan, they went bankrupt, they became Russia, just so you do understand," he said. "The last thing Russia wants to do is get too involved in Afghanistan.
"They tried that once. It didn't work out."