The death of 25-year-old Marine Sgt. Robert Hendricks from the detonation of an explosives-laden car in Afghanistan was heartbreaking. The possibility that the Locust Valley man and two comrades met their demise last year as part of a bounty program in which a Russian military intelligence unit paid Taliban fighters to kill Americans is an outrage.
Hendricks’ sacrifice demands an investigation. Instead, the White House has tried to shield President Donald Trump from blame that he might have neglected his responsibility to protect our troops and failed to hold Russian President Vladimir Putin accountable for his latest egregious violation of international norms.
The existence of the bounty program was gleaned from intelligence interrogations and backed up by intercepted electronic data that showed large money transfers from a Russian military account to one linked to the Taliban, as well as a Navy SEAL raid that recovered $500,000 from a Taliban outpost. Other facts are evolving.
Troubling reports say Trump was briefed about the bounty program in February; some accounts extend the timeline back to 2019. The president denies getting any such intelligence briefing. White House attempts to square that reek of semantics, parsing the difference between Trump getting oral reports and receiving the daily written brief all presidents get. Even Republican members of Congress briefed by the White House seem to believe the Russian bounties were included in Trump’s daily brief.
There are only terrible explanations here. That Trump doesn’t read the daily brief, which has been reported many times. That White House and intelligence officials didn’t think the information was solid enough to tell the president despite believing it was solid enough to alert British intelligence. That Trump is lying about what he knew and when. Or, perhaps most disturbingly, that officials were reluctant to tell Trump about the Russian bounties for fear he would disclose it to Putin.
Trump’s tenure has been marked by his inexplicable affinity for Putin. The two leaders have talked at least six times since March 30. Trump continues to speak warmly of the Russian despot and proposes to invite Russia back into the G-7 economic alliance, even with the bounty program apparently in effect.
Trump’s apparent refusal to take any steps to counter Russia or hold Putin to account is not a partisan issue. Republican members of Congress are rightly concerned and demanding answers, the depth of their anger measured best by the words from some about a proportional response consisting of Taliban and Russian body bags.
That’s not the way forward. But action is needed. A good start would be to ratchet up sanctions that severely hit the bank accounts of Putin and his circle of oligarchs, Russia’s economy and Putin’s standing in his country. That requires a president who likes to project strength and toughness to actually be strong and tough. Answers are needed, too. The Hendricks family deserves to know whether its son’s life was sacrificed because his commander in chief failed to protect him.
— The editorial board