Trump Must Answer Questions on Russia-Taliban Bounties: Senate Candidate

A Democratic Senate candidate for Arizona has called on President Donald Trump to say how much and when he knew about reports linking Russia to Taliban attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Retired NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, who is challenging incumbent Republican Sen. Martha McSally for her seat, also said the president should retaliate against Moscow for its alleged payment of bounties to Taliban fighters for dead American troops. The payments were first reported last week by The New York Times.

Kelly told The Arizona Republic that the Trump administration must answer for the allegations, determine the source and analyze the motivations of the bounties, which The Washington Post has said are linked to multiple deaths of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

"We can't allow the Russian intelligence agency to take these kinds of actions and then as a nation not respond," the former U.S. Navy pilot said. "We've got to have the backs of our troops, especially when they are in a combat theater."

Kelly suggested that the U.S. should consider sanctions or other economic measures to respond. Earlier in the week, Kelly said the reports of Russian involvement were "staggering."

The Trump administration has so far been evasive on the bounty reports. The Associated Press reported that Trump was briefed on the Russian plot in 2019, but White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Wednesday that the president was not told about the information before the Times published their report. She declined to say whether he had received written briefings.

McEnany also said that the information has not been corroborated and that intelligence officials were not agreed on the details and significance of the reports. "This President, I will tell you, is the most informed person on planet Earth when it comes to the threats we face," McEnany told reporters that questioned Trump's handling of national security.

Trump dismissed the reports as a "Fake News Media Hoax started to slander me & the Republican Party." He added, "I was never briefed because any info that they may have had did not rise to that level."

The Russian government has flatly rejected any suggestion that it had put bounties on U.S. troops or that it had been arming the Taliban for the past decade—an allegation made by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week.

Russian special envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov said Monday that the reports were "outright lies" promoted by those in the U.S. "who don't want to leave Afghanistan and want to justify their own failures."

Kelly may try and make the reported Russian bounties part of his efforts to unseat McSally—a Trump ally who has refused to criticize the president over the reports and instead condemned the leaking of intelligence information.

Kelly said that intelligence leaking is a problem, "but that's not the biggest problem." He added: "What I'm more concerned about is what our response needs to be ... Somebody needs to make it clear to the Russian president that this is unacceptable—we're not going to stand for this."

Foreign policy looks set to play a central part in the Arizona Senate race. Republicans have attacked Kelly for indirect business links to Chinese investors close to the Chinese Communist Party. McSally is planning to use the specter of China to boost her re-election campaign, seeking—like Trump—to pin the COVID-19 coronavirus on Beijing.

DOnald Trump, Russia, bounties, Afghanistan, Mark Kelly
President Donald Trump speaks during the 2020 "Salute to America" event in honor of Independence Day on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., July 4, 2020. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images/Getty