On ‘Russian Bounties,’ Media Amplify Biden Talking Points

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The story about President Trump allegedly ignoring reports that Russians were paying the Taliban bounties for killing American soldiers is nearly three months old and the facts have been in dispute since the moment it was reported. Yet, the story was given new life this week for no apparent reason other than the pundits’ desire to keep pummeling the commander-in-chief.

On Tuesday, Ben Rhodes, the Obama administration foreign policy wunderkind and MSNBC analyst, took a shot at Trump on Twitter, remarking that the president’s assessment of the Iranian threat “might seem more credible if Trump did a single thing about US intelligence reports about Russian bounties to kill US troops that were acted upon. What about those?”

That same day, longtime Atlantic writer and former Jimmy Carter speechwriter James Fallows penned a column on how “the press hasn’t broken its most destructive habits when it comes to covering Donald Trump.” In it, Fallows lamented that the media hadn’t been holding the president accountable. “Less than three months have passed since news broke of Russia paying bounties for the deaths of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and it’s rarely covered,” he wrote.

On Wednesday, CNN commentator and former Bill Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart tweeted, apropos of nothing in particular, “Has the President said anything yet on the Russians putting bounties on American soldiers in Afghanistan?”  

What’s curious about all this chatter is that there actually was a new development in the story on Russian bounties this week, not that you would know it from listening to the talking heads. On Monday, before any of the above comments were made, NBC News produced a detailed report on the matter, “U.S. commander: Intel still hasn’t established Russia paid Taliban ‘bounties’ to kill U.S. troops.”  Reporters Courtney Kube and Ken Delanian note “a consensus view among military leaders [that] underscores the lack of certainty around a narrative that has been accepted as fact by Democrats and other Trump critics, including presidential nominee Joe Biden.”

There’s a cynical, but obvious, explanation for why all of these pundits were suddenly singing from the same hymnal this week. Also on Tuesday, Biden had a “Veterans Roundtable” campaign event where – surprise! – his campaign tried to make an issue of the alleged Russian bounties. Monday night, Biden’s director of rapid response was on Twitter, blasting Trump for “giving Russia a pass for putting bounties on the heads of American service members.”

How we got to the point where such a disingenuous campaign talking point is mainstreamed with no pushback should cause the press to pause and examine how it happened. The anonymously sourced report about Russian bounties was immediately disputed by on-the-record sources when the New York Times first reported on it in June. It soon emerged that Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, led by notorious leaker Adam Schiff, were apparently briefed on reports of Russian bounties in February. Apparently, they didn’t think the information was reliable enough to warrant action, at least until it emerged in the pages of the New York Times this summer, conveniently packaged as a reason to attack Trump.

The press coverage here also betrays  the media’s bias. In 2010, there were also reports that the Russians were paying the Taliban bounties to kill American soldiers, yet the story was barely a blip on the national news radar. There were no widespread calls for President Obama to address the alleged bounties, and two years later Obama and Biden would be openly mocking their Republican presidential opponent for merely saying Russia was a threat.

If it looks like prominent pundits are now directly coordinating with Biden’s campaign, that’s something employers at news organizations seeking to maintain their credibility ought to investigate. (Alas, there are few illusions left about news organizations caring about appearing nonpartisan.)

Resurrecting the accusation that Trump ignored Russian bounties also dovetails nicely with the anonymously sourced story that Trump called slain American troops “suckers” and “losers,” which dominated the news a week ago. That story was written by Fallows’ boss, Atlantic Editor in Chief Jeffrey Goldberg, and has been contradicted to date by in excess of 20 on-the-record sources.

This brings us to the final disconcerting aspect of this mess. October 7 will mark the 19th anniversary of the first bombs America dropped on Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. That we’re still fighting this war is extraordinary by any historical measure, and Trump got elected campaigning on getting us out of Afghanistan. The contretemps surrounding the Trump’s stifled efforts to withdraw are too complicated to summarize here, except to say that when it comes to ending wars, if you’re not part of the solution, well, there’s good money in Washington to be had by prolonging the problem.

Whatever you think about Trump, the distrust that these dubious “Trump hates the military” stories engender among principled antiwar voices is understandable. “So the unsourced story [on Russian bounties] that dropped at a time that would put maximum pressure on Trump not to withdraw from Afghanistan, the one that suggested Russia had no strategic or tactical sense of its interests at all, turned out this way. Huh,” said National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty,  ladling out sarcasm after NBC’s report this week undercut the allegations. Those upset we’re still at war in Afghanistan are probably not reassured by the fact that this is just one of many leaks from America’s intel community in recent years that appear to be politically motivated.

When Donald Trump doesn’t tell the truth to further his political goals, that’s a big problem and the media and institutional Washington have gone out of their way to expose him for it. But the rhetoric this week was a disconcerting reminder that if Biden wins, the end result won’t just be a new president with an extensive history of plagiarism and willingness to make self-serving comments. The Democratic Party, media, and intelligence industrial complex will be all too willing to conspire to hide the truth along with him.

Mark Hemingway is a writer in Alexandria, Va. You can follow him on twitter @heminator.

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