Putin-y on the bounty
If the White House knew for months about U.S. intel findings that a Russian military intelligence unit put a price on the head of American soldiers in Afghanistan and invited Taliban-linked militants to collect, would you expect someone to tell President Donald Trump, and for him to do something about it?
Trump tweeted Sunday in a slow-motion response to reports that appeared Friday night in The New York Times and were confirmed by The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and other news organizations. He wrote on Twitter: “Nobody briefed or told me” or Vice President Mike Pence or White House chief of staff Mark Meadows "about the so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians." A few sentences later, he proclaimed "Nobody's been tougher on Russia" and segued to attack Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Hunter Biden over Ukraine.
Missing from the indignant tweets from the president and a handful of other administration officials was any categorical denial of what U.S. intelligence reportedly presented to the White House: that a Russian military spy unit offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to attack coalition forces in Afghanistan, including U.S. and British troops.
The intelligence officials believe several Americans were killed as a result, according to the Post. Intelligence officers and special operations forces got wind of the Russian activity as early as January, according to the Times, and the National Security Council met in late March to discuss it.
The council came up with possible options, including sanctions, but the White House has yet to authorize any. A National Security Council spokesman told the Post that “the veracity of the underlying allegations continue to be evaluated.” In the intervening period, Trump said he wanted to invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to a G-7 summit and announced plans to reduce U.S. troops stationed in Germany, a move pleasing to Moscow.
Despite Trump's I-know-nothing tweet, one American official told The Times that the intelligence report was briefed to the highest levels of the White House. Another said it was included in the President’s Daily Brief, a compendium of national security intelligence compiled for Trump to read. Former national security adviser John Bolton, now a harsh Trump critic, said that if the reports are correct, "it is pretty remarkable the president’s going out of his way to say he hasn’t heard anything about it."
Consternation crossed party lines that a potentially deadly Russian provocation went unanswered by a president who even now appeared disinterested. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking House Republican, demanded answers on who knew what and when, on why the president wasn't briefed and "What has been done in response to protect our forces & hold Putin accountable?” Multiple Republicans retweeted Cheney’s post. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on ABC's "This Week" accused Trump of wanting “to ignore” any charges against Russia and suggested she knew why: "With him, all roads lead to Putin.”
Biden calls it betrayal
The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee accused Trump of betraying his duty as president, based on the reports about the Russian scheme to pay bounties for the killings of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
“His entire presidency has been a gift to Putin, but this is beyond the pale,” Biden said during a virtual town hall Saturday. “It’s betrayal of the most sacred duty we bear as a nation to protect and equip our troops when we send them into harm’s way. It’s a betrayal of every single American family with a loved one serving in Afghanistan or anywhere overseas.”
Biden added: “President Trump, the commander in chief of American troops serving in a dangerous theater of war, has known about this for months, according to the Times, and done worse than nothing.”
Trump's 'white power' tweet
The president greeted Sunday morning with a 7:39 tweet of a video clip featuring a fist-pumping supporter shouting "White power! White power!"
The video came from a pro-Trump golf cart parade June 14 in The Villages, a Florida retirement community. The "white power" taunts were aimed at anti-Trump counterdemonstrators who called the president a bigot. Trump's accompanying comment said: “Thank you to the great people of The Villages. The Radical Left Do Nothing Democrats will Fall in the Fall. Corrupt Joe is shot. See you soon!!!"
Among those appalled was Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black Republican in his chamber. On CNN's "State of the Union," Scott called the tweet "indefensible" and said "he should just take it down."
The tweet was deleted around 11 a.m. White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere followed with a statement: "President Trump is a big fan of the Villages. He did not hear the one statement made on the video. What he did see was tremendous enthusiasm from his many supporters."
The "statement" was hard to miss — it came 9 seconds into the video, which can be seen on TMZ. Other than claiming Trump didn't hear it, there was no White House comment on what he thought about a supporter saying "white power."
Janison: GOP's high anxiety
Some Republicans leaders in Congress are trying to put a brave face on what Newsday's Dan Janison writes is an increasingly scary outlook for down-ballot candidates as Trump sinks in the polls.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in a Fox News interview Friday: “If the election was today, yes, you’re concerned. Can we do better? Yes, we can.” Republican worries could not have been salved when Fox commentator-adviser Sean Hannity probed softly about Trump's second-term agenda and the president wandered off with no answer to the question.
Allies practically pleaded for the president to show more urgency on the coronavirus, rather than act as if the crisis has passed. The administration's decision to wind down federally supported testing sites prompted a letter in which Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, both Texas Republicans, urged the administration to reverse course. “Frankly I didn’t really understand what they were thinking," Cornyn said, as quoted in Politico.
Democrats have worries, too, but of a lower magnitude for now. Primary voters in New York backed more ideologically leftist candidates in Congress with whom Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer might find difficult to deal. Republicans seized on a Biden gaffe that was less consequential than it appeared in an edited video they pushed out. "Now we have over 120 million dead from COVID." In the original video, Biden quickly corrects himself: "I mean, 120,000 dead from COVID."
How's that plan coming?
Senior administration officials have been meeting since December to try to craft an agenda for a Trump second term, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Some of it sounds like his unachieved first-term agenda. While Trump is pressing in court to end Obamacare, White House officials so far have been unable to come up with a replacement health-care plan. There's also lowering prescription drug prices, investing in infrastructure and overhauling the country’s immigration system.
The president hasn't been deeply involved in policy development, a senior administration official told the Journal, because he is "sort of singularly focused right now on dealing with the virus that’s still with us, and getting Americans back to work."
While allies want Trump to tell voters more of what he would deliver if he wins reelection, one of his more immediate concerns is coming up with a new derisive nickname for Biden, according to The Washington Post.
Trump has been asking advisers if he should stick with “Sleepy Joe” — or try to coin another moniker, such as “Swampy Joe” or “Creepy Joe.” The president isn't sure “Sleepy Joe” is damaging enough, and some of his advisers agree and have urged him to stop using it. In a tweet on Sunday, Trump tried out yet another variant: “Corrupt Joe.”
Trump's not facing it
By 62% to 38%, Americans believe the fight against the coronavirus is going badly, according to a CBS News poll. Only 41% — the lowest yet — think Trump is doing a good job on it. Yet Trump remains disengaged other than to blame higher numbers on testing, and he won't encourage mask use.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, appealed on CNN for Trump to set an example: "I wish the president would wear a mask when it’s appropriate, because millions of Americans admire him, and they would follow his lead." Alexander said that also would "help us get rid of this political debate that says if you’re for Trump, you don’t wear a mask, if you’re against Trump, you do.”
On Sunday talk shows, Pence said the country is in “a much better place” to respond to outbreaks throughout the country, but Health and Human Service Secretary Alex Azar warned “the window is closing” to narrow the spread of the virus, reports Newsday's Laura Figueroa Hernandez.
Regarding masks, Pence said, "We want to defer to local officials.” Pence himself wore a mask when he arrived in Dallas, but not when speaking at a megachurch where mask use was mixed. He met later with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who said his state has taken a “very swift and very dangerous turn” in a resurgence of the disease. The positivity rate from testing there is now over 13%, compared with 4.2% one month ago. Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, stressed the importance of "100% compliance" with mask orders.
Separately, Figueroa writes on how Trump and top White House officials publicly have been retreating from the administration's own social-distancing guidelines. Trump told a rally in Phoenix last week that the disease is "going away" even as cases were rising.
More coronavirus news
See a roundup of the latest pandemic developments from Long Island and beyond by Newsday's reporting staff, written by Vera Chinese and Lisa L. Colangelo. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.
What else is happening:
- Pence has postponed campaign events in Florida and Arizona “out of an abundance of caution” as both states experience a spike in coronavirus cases, a Trump campaign spokesperson confirmed. He will still travel to both states to meet with their governors and health care teams.
- A top White House economist, Tomas Philipson, told The Wall Street Journal that he had a mild case of COVID-19 earlier this month, making him the latest person in proximity to Trump to contract the illness. He is leaving the administration this week and said his illness caused him to accelerate his plan. The Journal said he had clashed with others and was forced out.
- Biden has resisted pressure from the left to embrace more of the Black Lives Matter agenda, writes Politico Magazine. He endorsed some policing proposals such as reforming qualified immunity and banning chokeholds, but he also favors community policing. The campaign is focusing on policy and steering clear of cultural issues.
- Biden’s campaign says 36% of its senior staff are people of color, sharing staff diversity data after facing pressure to answer questions on the issue, ABC News reported. The campaign provided no figures on the racial diversity of its overall campaign staff. The campaign also noted that women are in the majority of both the campaign’s senior staff and its full staff.
- Some leaders of college groups that backed Bernie Sanders are rethinking their vow to sit out the election or vote for a third-party candidate rather than accept Biden, Politico reports. Trump's militaristic response to anti-police brutality protests moved Amira Chowdhury at the University of Pennsylvania off the fence. "With a heavy heart, and with great anger and frustration, and with great rage towards the Democratic establishment, I will vote for Biden,” she said.
- The Rolling Stones are threatening Trump with legal action for using their songs at his rallies despite cease-and-desist directives.