Alleged Russian bounty plot against US troops fuels Trump's critics

In a photo taken on Nov 28, 2019, US President Donald Trump speaks to US troops during a visit to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump's response to an alleged Russian plot to offer bounties for killing American troops in Afghanistan, which he has repeatedly dismissed as fake news and a hoax, has become the latest potential scandal in Washington and flashpoint for partisan outrage.

The episode has also given Mr Trump's political opponents another opening to criticise him, and could undercut his support among the military and conservative voters just as his disapproval rating is climbing.

The New York Times first reported on the intelligence assessment last Friday (June 26), and the Associated Press reported on Tuesday that the White House had been aware of the intelligence in early 2019, before the President signed a peace deal with the Taleban in February this year.

The White House denied that Mr Trump had been briefed on the alleged plot, which Russia and the Taleban have denied.

The White House and Republicans have stressed that the intelligence has not been verified, while Democrats have questioned why he was not briefed sooner and are pushing for Mr Trump to take a strong stance against Russia.

But it has fuelled Mr Trump's conservative critics.

The Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group of long-time Republicans, released an attack ad on Tuesday featuring former US Navy Seal Dan Barkhuff as an example of one of many current and former American troops who "feel betrayed" by Mr Trump.

"He chose to do nothing about it. Any commander-in-chief with a spine would be stomping the living shit out of Russians right now," Dr Barkhuff said in the ad.

"Mr. Trump, you're either a coward who can't stand up to an ex-KGB goon or you're complicit," added the ex-Navy Seal, who described himself as a pro-life, gun-owning combat veteran.

Former national security adviser John Bolton said that not every piece of intelligence was passed on to the President, but the way Mr Trump was going out of his way to say he had not heard anything about it was remarkable.

"An act of Russian aggression like that against American service members is a very, very serious matter, and nothing's been done about it... so it may look like he was negligent."

"But of course, he can disown everything if nobody ever told him about it," Mr Bolton said on NBC's Meet The Press programme on Sunday.

Mr Bolton, who released a tell-all memoir last month that called Mr Trump unfit for office and accused him of putting his re-election bid above national interests, declined to comment when asked by AP if he had briefed Mr Trump about the issue in 2019.

A lot of uncertainty remains over the alleged plot.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said on Wednesday that it was unverified intelligence which was continually being assessed.

But the commotion comes at a bad time for Mr Trump, who is currently floundering in polls as more voters disapprove of his handling of the coronavirus crisis and nationwide anti-racism protests.

The Military Times reported that Mr Trump's support among the military has slipped since his election in 2016, when 46 per cent of troops approved of him compared to 37 percent who disapproved.

An October 2018 poll showed that that margin of support had disappeared, with 44 per cent of troops approving of his presidency while 43 per cent did not.

Mr Trump is also on less-than-solid ground with some former military leaders, who have publicly denounced him following his threat last month to send troops in to quell anti-racism protests.

In a remarkable op-ed in The Atlantic last month, his former secretary of defence Jim Mattis said Mr Trump was trying to divide the nation and called him a threat to the Constitution.

Moreover, leaks like the Russia bounty plot are likely to continue throughout the campaign season, US analysts from the Eurasia Group consultancy wrote in a note on Monday.

"Even though Russia is not the leading issue in the presidential campaign it is still a topic that directionally supports Democratic attacks that Trump is not fit for office, and as a result the partisan uproar could last through the summer," they said.

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