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Trump says he has not spoken to Putin about alleged Russian bounties on US troops

President Trump.
President Trump.Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump said in an interview broadcast Wednesday that he has not spoken to Russian President Vladimir Putin about U.S. intelligence reports of Russian bounties given to Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

"I have never discussed it with him, no," Trump said during a taping of "Axios on HBO." He said he did not bring up the issue during his most recent conversation with Putin last week, which Trump said was "a phone call to discuss other things."

The Trump administration in recent weeks has questioned the veracity of the intelligence. But some of Trump's own senior intelligence officials viewed the information as credible enough to warn the Pentagon and allies so they could ensure they had measures in place to protect their forces in Afghanistan and to begin developing options for responding to such a Russian operation, national security adviser Robert C. O'Brien said earlier this month.

During the interview, Trump continued to cast doubt on the intelligence, saying, "Frankly, that's an issue that many people said was fake news."

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Pressed by Axios's Jonathan Swan on whether he believes the intelligence, Trump did not answer directly.

"You know, it's interesting," Trump said. "Nobody brings up China. They always bring Russia, Russia, Russia."

When reports of the possible bounties emerged last month, Democrats seized on Trump's reluctance to take action as another sign of an unwillingness to challenge Putin - a charge that gained currency in the wake of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

During the interview, Trump stressed that he was not orally briefed on the intelligence about possible Russian bounties.

"It never reached my desk," Trump said. "You know why? . . . Intelligence didn't think it was real. ... If it reached my desk, I would have done something about it."

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Trump did not respond directly to a question about news reports that the intelligence was included in a written briefing. In response to a question from Swan, Trump said he reads his written briefings.

"They like to say I don't read. I read a lot," Trump said.

He said that "a lot of people," including some foreign policy officials from the administration of President George W. Bush, were convinced that the intelligence was not real.

Trump also pressed his frequent argument that there are opportunities to improve U.S.-Russian relations.

"If we can do something with Russia, in terms of nuclear proliferation, which is a very big problem - bigger problem than global warming, a much bigger problem than global warming in terms of the real world, that would be a great thing," Trump said.

Administration officials said earlier this month that the White House was not planning an immediate response to intelligence reports of Russian bounties because Trump does not believe the reports are true or "actionable."

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The Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.