The ongoing scandal over potential bounties paid by Russia to Taliban fighters for killing American service personnel — and whether President Donald Trump knew about it — is also turning into a key demonstration of Trump’s reliance on Fox News and his constant reactions to the network’s coverage.
The New York Times first reported on Friday that “American intelligence officials have concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan — including targeting American troops,” and that this intelligence finding had been briefed to Trump several months ago, “but the White House has yet to authorize” a response. On Sunday, The Washington Post also reported that the alleged bounties are “believed to have resulted in the deaths of several U.S. service members, according to intelligence gleaned from U.S. military interrogations of captured militants in recent months.”
Fox News’ initial response was to treat this story as a feud between the president and The New York Times and to carry Trump’s denials that he had ever been briefed on such a claim. (One of Fox’s own corporate sister publications, The Wall Street Journal, also reported the core intelligence claim of the Times’ story on Saturday while not confirming whether Trump had been briefed on it.)
But The New York Times further added to its reporting Monday night, with sources specifically saying that intelligence was included in Trump’s President’s Daily Brief document: “One of the officials said the item appeared in Mr. Trump’s brief in late February; the other cited Feb. 27, specifically.” Investigators are also reportedly focused on “at least two deadly attacks on American soldiers in Afghanistan,” one of which killed three Marines in 2019.
Already, Fox News is spinning for Trump on this point, with Fox & Friends co-hosts claiming, “All presidents don't read all of their briefings,” and adding, “It might have been printed in it, it doesn't mean that he actually heard about it.”
But as it also turns out, Trump’s activities on that date were intricately tied to Fox News. On the day of February 27, Trump met at the White House with then-Fox News personalities Diamond and Silk, later retweeting a video from the public event:
Also present at the event was frequent Fox News guest Candace Owens:
The Daily Beast also reported that day that Trump “spent 45 minutes talking to the lead actors of a low-budget conservative play about the so-called Deep State.”
Trump hasn’t seen the play, according to [playwright Phelim McAleer], but praised its concept: a script based entirely on congressional testimony and the text messages between former FBI agent Peter Strzok and former FBI lawyer Lisa Page, who discussed the FBI’s investigation into Trump’s campaign and Russia while having an affair. The play’s leads—Superman actor Dean Cain and former Buffy the Vampire Slayer actress Kristy Swanson—also attended the White House meeting.
That night, Trump also tweeted praise for then-Fox Business host Trish Regan, who accused CNN of attempting to “stoke a national Coronavirus panic,” motivated by “Trump Derangement Syndrome.”
Trump also appears to have tweeted on another topic inspired by Regan’s show, though without directly mentioning her, relating to the administration’s legal battle with sanctuary cities.
Fox fired Trish Regan in March, after she delivered a deranged monologue complaining of a “coronavirus impeachment scam,” claiming that “many in the liberal media [are] using, and I mean using, coronavirus in an attempt to demonize and destroy the president,” and saying that Democrats were creating “mass hysteria in order to stop our economy dead in its tracks.”
Fox fired Diamond and Silk in April after spinning a variety of unhinged coronavirus-related conspiracy theories. But these now-disgraced Fox News personalities were the people that Trump was publicly celebrating on February 27, the day that the Russian bounties allegation was reportedly put into his daily intelligence briefing.
And Trump is still relying on Fox News to help him out of this jam, retweeting the following messages from Fox News correspondent-at-large Geraldo Rivera, challenging the Times’ reporting. (Incidentally, Rivera’s mention of “Capone’s vault” is actually a reference to one of his own hyped journalistic failures.)
Another person with ties to the president’s favorite network who has slammed the Times’ reporting of the intelligence briefing is Richard Grenell, a former Fox News contributor who during this key time frame was serving as Trump’s acting director of national intelligence (DNI). On Saturday, Grenell tweeted that he had “never heard” of this alleged Russian bounty plot:
But as more information has come out, Grenell retweeted a statement from John Ratcliffe, his successor as DNI who was confirmed by the Senate in late May, slamming the “selective leaking” of classified information in this matter as “simply put, a crime” and that the government was “still investigating the alleged intelligence referenced in recent media reporting.”
In addition, the Times’ story from Monday night also reported that this allegation had made its way into further intelligence reviews:
Moreover, a description of the intelligence assessment that the Russian unit had carried out the bounties plot was also seen as serious and solid enough to disseminate more broadly across the intelligence community in a May 4 article in the C.I.A.’s World Intelligence Review, a classified compendium commonly referred to as The Wire, two officials said.
On the same day that news of the Russian bounties was reportedly included in the CIA’s internal government report, then-acting DNI Grenell posted a tweet attacking both CNN and The Washington Post’s coverage of Trump’s handling of the intelligence community — and specifically, an online quip by CNN national security analyst Sam Vinograd that Trump must not be reading his Daily Brief.