EDITORIAL: Trump must counter latest Russian hostility

York Dispatch Editorial Board
FILE - In this June 23, 2020, file photo President Donald Trump speaks with reporters before departing on Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington.

There’s no doubt plenty that has yet to come to the light but the bombshell story this weekend that Russia’s military offered Taliban fighters bounties to target U.S. troops in Afghanistan — and that the Trump administration has known this for months but done nothing about it — raises questions anew about the president’s peculiar coziness with Russia and its dictator-in-all-but-title, Vladimir Putin.

The story, broken by The New York Times and subsequently confirmed by a variety of other news outlets, asserts that U.S. intelligence determined in March that bounties were offered and, in at least some cases, paid by a Russian military unit known as the G.R.U. If true, and initial administration responses did not question the veracity of the reports, a major question needs to be answered: Why has the U.S. not retaliated?

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According to The Washington Post, the Russian operation “generated an intense debate within the Trump administration about how best to respond.” 

That’s understandable. The bounties are, as the Post terms them, “a troubling new tactic,” and retaliatory options could range from diplomatic demands to any number of sanctions. 

The one response that’s not acceptable, however, is no response. And given President Donald Trump’s history with Putin, it is reasonable to ask whether any response will be forthcoming.

After all, Trump’s dealings with the Russian leader have been controversial and cloaked in secrecy. They’ve met privately — which is highly unusual — and the president refuses to disclose what was discussed, going so far as to confiscate the interpreter’s notes. (After one of those meetings, Trump infamously declared he believed Putin instead of U.S. intelligence about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.) 

The president has signed sanctions against Russia over its interference in Ukraine but only after fighting them tooth and nail and, ultimately, unsuccessfully.

And as recently as this month, the president was again urging the G7 nations to include Russia at their next meeting.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, looks over towards U.S. President Donald Trump, left, as Trump speaks during their joint news conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, July 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

So, given this latest example of what looks like Russian favoritism, an explanation is needed. And it’s going to have to be better than what Trump was peddling over the weekend:

“Nobody briefed or told me, @VP Pence, or Chief of Staff @MarkMeadows about the so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians,” he wrote on Twitter, dismissing the story as — say it with us — “fake news.”

That’s either a blatant lie or a flagrant breech of national security. One of our foremost political foes is putting a price on U.S. soldiers’ heads and that information is not shared with the commander in chief? A responsible president would want to know why.

But a responsible president does not occupy the White House. And a responsible party does not pressure him from the U.S. Senate. While presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and even Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton are calling out the president’s inaction, Senate Republicans, including Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, remain largely silent. (Customary Trump supporter Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was a notable and welcome exception.)

The president issued an executive order just days after Twitter first flagged his messages as misleading. He was likewise quick to mobilize U.S. Marshals to protect Confederate statues from being defaced or toppled by protesters.

But give him an important issue — the entrenched racism that led to those statue-targeting protests; a pandemic virus that has stricken 2.5 million Americans, 125,000 of them fatally; protecting U.S. men and women in uniform fighting to protect our allies and further our interests abroad — and he vanishes.

When it comes to Russia targeting U.S. soldiers, the nation needs to know what Trump knew, when he knew and, most importantly, what he plans to do about it.