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Russia bounty reports, U.S. troop movements put Trump-Putin relationship in spotlight

In an interview released Wednesday, President Trump said that in a recent call with Vladimir Putin, he did not challenge the Russian president over reports his country sought to pay the Taliban to kill American troops in Afghanistan. This latest conversation came as the U.S. prepares to relocate forces within Europe -- despite concerns from some NATO members. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In an interview released today, President Trump said that he had not challenged President Vladimir Putin over Russian efforts to pay the Taliban to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

    The two leaders spoke just last week, for the seventh time in recent months.

    As Nick Schifrin reports, this comes as the administration also cemented plans to withdraw and redeploy American forces in Europe.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President Trump often questions and criticizes the U.S. intelligence community and praises Russian President Vladimir Putin.

    And when he spoke to Putin on July 23, he did not raise the intelligence community's investigations into Russian payments to the Taliban to attack U.S. troops, as he told Axios on HBO's Jonathan Swan.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We did not discuss that, no.

  • Jonathan Swan:

    And you have never discussed it with him?

  • President Donald Trump:

    I have never discussed it with him, no. I would. I'd have no problem with it. But, you know…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Jonathan Swan:

    But you don't believe the intelligence. It's because you don't believe the intelligence? That's why?

  • President Donald Trump:

    Everything — you know, it's interesting. Nobody ever brings up China. They always bring Russia, Russia, Russia.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Former intelligence officials tell "PBS NewsHour" the Taliban received Russian military intelligence money to target U.S. service members.

    Officials debated the intelligence, and commanders say the bounties did not likely result in deaths. But it was an increase in Russian support to the Taliban, as already detailed in 2018 by then top commander General John Nicholson.

  • John Nicholson:

    I mean, we have had weapons brought to this headquarters and given to us by Afghan leaders and said, this was given by the Russians to the Taliban.

  • Jonathan Swan:

    John Nicholson, former head of forces in Afghanistan, said — and this is when he was working for you — that Russia is supplying weapons to the Taliban.

    Isn't that enough to challenge Putin over the killings of U.S. soldiers?

  • President Donald Trump:

    Well, we supplied weapons when they were fighting Russia too.

    When we were — when they were fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan…

  • Jonathan Swan:

    That's a different era.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Well, it's a different — I'm just saying.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to prop up an unpopular communist government. The United States supported and armed Afghan fighters known as mujahideen, who targeted Soviet troops.

    In 2001, the United States was attacked and waged war in Afghanistan because that's where 9/11's planners plotted. President Trump's moral equivalence is inaccurate, says Doug Lute.

  • Douglas Lute:

    The equivalence here is inappropriate, because the situation is exactly reversed from what it was 30 or 40 years ago.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Lute is a retired lieutenant general appointed by President Bush to coordinate the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and by President Obama to be NATO ambassador.

    He said both his former bosses would have demanded more information about the bounty program and responded, even if the intelligence was uncertain.

  • Douglas Lute:

    It's unimaginable to me that the president has — that this has been public for weeks, and probably available to the president for many weeks before that, and yet he's done nothing, to include not even raising it in multiple calls with President Putin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, President Trump added he would be — quote — "very angry" if the bounties story were true. His administration has sanctioned Russian officials for election interference and chemical weapons attacks. But he has also reverted to moral equivalence on Russia before.

  • Bill O’Reilly:

    Putin is a killer.

  • President Donald Trump:

    There's a lot of killers. We have got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Another presidential instinct and priority, reducing U.S. troops overseas. Today, the administration announced it would withdraw nearly 12,000 troops from Germany and bring half home.

    Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said thousands of service members would move toward Russia's borders and enhance deterrence.

  • Sec. Mark Esper:

    We're following in many ways the boundary east, where our — where our newest allies are, so, into the Black Sea region. We talked about additional forces into Poland. And I think there are opportunities to put forces into the Baltics.

    That's why it's the strategic laydown that enhances deterrence, strengthens the allies.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But, just minutes before, President Trump said the decision was punishment for Germany's failing to fulfill its promise to spend 2 percent GDP on defense.

  • President Donald Trump:

    So, we're reducing the force because they're not paying their bill. It's very simple. They're delinquent.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, a senior ally to German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the reduction would weaken NATO. And the unit that will return to the U.S. is the most capable ground force in Europe.

  • Douglas Lute:

    It is, in itself, the most flexible deterrent package that is in place today. So, to remove it from Germany and move it to the United States, it does not provide the same reassurance as having American soldiers live in Europe, be there 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But reassuring Western European allies and overcoming bipartisan concerns about troop drawdowns and his relationship with Vladimir Putin have never been President Trump's priorities.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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