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The Morrison government doesn’t want to talk about Trump and the shocking Russian bounty story

Australia was not mentioned in the reporting but still has hundreds of military personnel in Afghanistan as trainers of the Afghan army. Forty-one Australian forces have been killed and 261 wounded in the theatre since 2001. According to the NYT, the US officials reported this discovery to their superiors in January. It went to a high-level White House meeting in March – an inter-agency meeting of the National Security Council.

These NYT disclosures, to this point in the story, have not been contested by the Trump administration. The key conclusions have been confirmed by other US media including The Wall Street Journal. The Washington Post followed up with a report that the Russian bounties had led to the killing of at least one US soldier in Afghanistan.

Illustration: Andrew Dyson

Illustration: Andrew DysonCredit:

While the NYT reported an unnamed official as saying that Trump himself had been informed and that the finding had been included in a President’s daily brief, Trump has since denied any personal knowledge. “Nobody briefed or told me,” he tweeted, nor Vice-President Mike Pence nor Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows. He cast doubt on the veracity of the conclusion – he labelled it “so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians”, a misrepresentation.

He also said that “intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible”, which was why he hadn’t been informed. A top Republican senator, Lindsay Graham, demanded something more serious than these efforts to explain the whole thing away. “I expect the Trump Administration to take such allegations seriously and inform Congress immediately as to the reliability of these news reports.” Trump, in his own defence, added: “Nobody’s been tougher on Russia than the Trump Administration.”

In fact, Trump has steadfastly defended Putin against every criticism and gone out of his way to favour him. In the time since the White House National Security Council discussed the Russian bounties three months ago, the US President invited Putin to join a forthcoming summit of the G-7. Russia had been expelled from the group of industrial democracies for its military aggression against its neighbour, annexing Crimea and invading eastern Ukraine. Trump’s effort to bring it back in was vetoed by Britain and Canada among the G-7 nations.

And the American leader has started withdrawing some of the US troops from Germany where they’ve been based since World War Two to deter Russian aggression. Last month Trump told reporters that the US and Russia had a “great friendship”.

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Conservative Republican Liz Cheney publicly posed three questions for Trump to answer. Cheney is the chair of the House Republican Conference, a key party caucus, and daughter of former vice-president Dick Cheney.

She tweeted: “If reporting about Russian bounties on US forces is true, the White House must explain: 1. Why weren’t the President or Vice-President briefed? Was the info in the PDB [President’s daily brief]? 2. Who did know and when? 3. What has been done in response to protect our forces & hold Putin accountable?” This final question is the hardest to answer. Because, on the evidence to date, the answer is “nothing”.

The reason for the Republicans’ concern is obvious. If Trump knew of the suspicion that Putin was paying for American soldiers to be killed yet continued friendly overtures, he’d be deeply unpatriotic at best and a traitor at worst. And if Trump didn’t know about the intelligence while his own National Security Council did, why did the NSC not alert him when his officials saw him offering new concessions to Putin?

Because it wasn’t credible? That can’t be. Surely if the US thought the reports were sufficiently credible to brief the British government about, they were credible enough to at least flag with their own President. To allow him to pursue his affair with Putin in these circumstances risked making Trump look a complete dupe. Did the American system fail him?

The Morrison government so far hasn’t wanted to talk about this story. And you can see why. For Australia’s government, the five questions are, first: Did the US, having briefed Britain, also inform other allies that have troops in Afghanistan? Second, did the US brief Canberra? If not, and now that the story is raging in the US media: Have Australian officials asked US counterparts in recent days what the intel was, and whether any Australian personnel are at any risk? And fourth is the overarching question of trust. Can Australia continue to join US military operations trusting that the senior ally will pass on intel affecting the safety of its forces? And, finally, if America isn’t sure that it can trust itself, how can we?

Peter Hartcher is international editor.

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