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Trump's Russia bounties scandal highlights potential dangers of a blind spot on Putin

It involves not only major issues of American national security policy, but also the lives of American service members.
Image: Vladimir Putin, DOnald Trump, silhouette, JAPAN-G20-SUMMIT
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump arrive for a group photo at the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 28, 2019.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images file

American intelligence officials have suspected since January that Russian's military intelligence unit, known as the GRU, secretly provided bounties to Taliban-linked criminals and militants in Afghanistan to target U.S. and coalition forces. The investigation into this covert operation is now focused on an April 2019 bombing that resulted in the deaths of three Marines and may have been related to the bounties.

The White House's immediate response was to downplay the intelligence and, more bizarrely, deny that President Donald Trump had been briefed on it. Trump also quickly tweeted that he had not been warned of the suspected Russian effort. If it turns out that Russians did orchestrate the bombing and potentially other attacks, it represents a significant escalation of what many experts believe to be Moscow's "hybrid war" against the United States and the West.

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It also further raises nagging questions that have bedeviled administration critics for the past three years: Does Trump have a dangerous blind spot when it comes to any issue that involves U.S.-Russia relations? Leaders have a "blind spot" when they fail to recognize the impact of personal biases on their own judgment and decision-making. If this is not the case, are his administration's efforts to formulate a coherent policy with respect to Moscow fatally flawed?

Despite limp White House protestations, intelligence reports about a potential Russian bounty program were widely known and distributed.

Despite limp White House protestations, intelligence reports about a potential Russian bounty program were widely known and distributed. They were included in Trump's President's Daily Brief, or PDB, in February, and John Bolton, then the national security adviser, is reported to have told colleagues that he briefed the president on the issue as early as March 2019. (The National Security Council and the CIA also discussed the issue this year.)

The PDB is a daily written summary of high-level, all-source intelligence on national security affairs that is produced for the president, key Cabinet members and advisers. Historically, most presidents have read the PDB each morning, though Trump has frequently chosen not to do so.

So if the information was known, why did Trump — and his aides — feel as though it was not important enough to explore? The White House has tried to argue that the intelligence was unverified and thus not important. But it is standard procedure to present serious issues to the commander-in-chief, whether or not there is consensus. Otherwise, the president will not have the full picture as major threats develop. Indeed, intelligence is inherently about dealing with levels of uncertainty.

Russia is clearly a focal point, and it is in opposition to U.S. national security policy on a host of issues: Ukraine, Eastern Europe, Syria, Libya, the imposition of additional sanctions on Iran, cyberthreats, etc. Furthermore, throughout the early months of this year, Trump was still planning to invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to attend the G-7 summit. Trump had openly suggested that Russia be allowed to rejoin this group of world leaders. Also, and importantly, the U.S. was finalizing an agreement with the Taliban that called for a reduction in hostilities, the withdrawal of U.S. forces and negotiations between the Taliban and the Kabul government.

Any of these reasons should have been enough for Trump to pay attention.

On the other hand, Trump's potential blind spot with respect to Russia and Putin is not a recent phenomenon, and there have been numerous examples of his efforts to forge closer ties with Moscow — at nearly any cost. Trump widely praised Putin before his election, and during the 2016 campaign he repeatedly argued for warmer relations with the Kremlin. In a stunning meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the former Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, in the Oval Office in May 2017, Trump reportedly revealed highly classified information that exposed an intelligence source on the Islamic state terrorist group.

Throughout his presidency, Trump has continued to reject the findings of the entire U.S. intelligence community that Moscow interfered in the 2016 election in his favor. At the Helsinki Summit in summer 2018, he publicly sided with the Russian president against the FBI and American intelligence services. (He would, however, attempt to walk this back a few days later.)

Robert Mueller's report confirmed the intelligence community's findings and "identified numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign." At roughly the same time, it was alleged that the national security and intelligence communities were unwilling to broach sensitive operations about Russia with Trump for fear that he would nix the efforts or publicly release details.

Over the past three years, the president has also pursued or suggested policies that Putin would clearly favor. He has publicly, as well as privately, threatened to withdraw the United States from NATO. Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned in part over the precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, which clearly benefited Russian policy, and warned Trump in his letter of resignation about the threat Russia posed to the international order. The president's recent decision to dramatically reduce U.S. forces stationed in Germany was certainly welcomed by the Kremlin, but it has now been questioned by senior members of his own party.

While the president's supporters argue that Trump has been harder on Russia than his predecessors, his record suggests this is not the case. Trump did approve the sale of lethal weapons to Ukraine that the Obama administration did not, but he subsequently suspended military aid to Ukraine meant to confront Russian last summer. He signed the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act in August 2017 despite having called it seriously flawed, but he subsequently bypassed a congressionally mandated deadline to implement it.

Trump's questionable ability to effectively formulate national security policy with Russia has reached a tipping point. With plenty of distractions, this issue has still managed an exceptionally rare feat: uniting Democrats and Republicans in a call for answers.

This also occurs as a report surfaced that during numerous classified phone calls, Trump was unprepared and frequently outplayed by Putin. In the words of one official, "he gave away the store," and his actions raised major concerns among his senior national security team. Presidents or their administrations have had real or contrived blind spots in past, but this involves not only major issues of American national security policy, but also the lives of American service members.

Ever since Watergate, questions about presidential actions have been measured by the words of Republican Sen. Howard Baker: "What did the president know, and when did he know it?" That would certainly appear to be the case now. But even if Trump was really unaware, why did other members of his Cabinet not raise the alarm? Consequently, an additional question may also be appropriate: "If he did not know it ... why not?"