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Trump says he didn’t ask Putin about Taliban bounty reports, calls it ‘fake news’

Click to play video: 'Russia denies it issued bounties against U.S. soldiers as White House distances Trump from reports' Russia denies it issued bounties against U.S. soldiers as White House distances Trump from reports
ABOVE: Russia denies it issued bounties against U.S. soldiers as White House distances Trump from reports – Jun 29, 2020

U.S. President Donald Trump said he never questioned Russian leader Vladimir Putin about U.S. intelligence reports that Moscow paid the Taliban to kill American troops in Afghanistan, casting doubt on the reports in an interview.

Trump, who has sought to cultivate warmer relations with Moscow, has said he was not briefed on the matter before it emerged in news media in late June. He has called the reports a hoax and casts doubt on them.

Read more: Amid Russia bounty reports, U.S. critics say Taliban can’t be trusted to uphold deal

“I have never discussed it with him,” Trump said in an interview on Tuesday with “Axios on HBO.”

Russia has denied the reports.

Asked why he did not confront Putin on the issue in their call last Thursday, Trump told Axios, “That was a phone call to discuss other things, and frankly that’s an issue that many people said was fake news.”

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He said he and the Russian president discussed nuclear nonproliferation in that phone call.

Click to play video: 'Pelosi accuses Trump admin of committing ‘a con’ when stating intelligence on Russia was unverified' Pelosi accuses Trump admin of committing ‘a con’ when stating intelligence on Russia was unverified
Pelosi accuses Trump admin of committing ‘a con’ when stating intelligence on Russia was unverified – Jul 2, 2020

Democrats in Congress have accused Trump, who is seeking re-election in November, of not taking intelligence information concerning soldiers’ deaths seriously enough. They have pressed for more information from the intelligence community and the White House.

National security adviser Robert O’Brien has said Trump was not verbally briefed on the Russian bounty intelligence because his CIA briefer concluded the reports were uncorroborated.

‘Never reached my desk’

White House officials have not denied the information was included in the President’s Daily Brief, a summary of a daily summary of classified information and analysis on national security. Some news outlets reported the issue was included in the PDB in February but that Trump may not have read it.

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“It never reached my desk. You know why? Because they didn’t think – intelligence, they didn’t think it was real,” Trump told Axios. “I wouldn’t mind – if it reached my desk, I would have done something about it.”

Trump has spoken to Putin at least eight times since the intelligence was first included in his briefing, Axios said.

READ MORE: White House aware of reports Russia put bounties on U.S. troops since 2019, sources say

Senator Angus King, an independent who sits on the intelligence committee, said he found Trump’s comments astonishing. While he could not discuss specifics, King said he was confident the bounty reports were not “fake news.”

“I don’t know what could be more important than the Russians providing incentives to take the lives of Americans,” he told MSNBC. “I don’t have any explanation except that it’s part of a pattern that is no surprise to anybody that the president has been very reluctant to cross President Putin.”

Trump has said many intelligence officials doubted the report’s veracity, a stance contradicted by four U.S. and European sources and by its inclusion in a widely read CIA report in May.

Click to play video: 'No indication Americans have been killed in connection with Russian bounties: WH press secretary' No indication Americans have been killed in connection with Russian bounties: WH press secretary
No indication Americans have been killed in connection with Russian bounties: WH press secretary – Jul 1, 2020

The New York Times first reported in June that U.S. intelligence had concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit had offered the Taliban payments of up to $100,000 for each U.S. or allied soldier killed.

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Trump told Axios he does read the daily intelligence briefing.

“I read it a lot, you know, I read a lot. They like to say I don’t read. I read a lot,” he said.

Excerpts from the interview were released on Wednesday. It will be broadcast in full on Monday, Aug. 3.

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