Joe Biden's presidential campaign blasted President Donald Trump's conduct as "absolutely despicable" after Trump said he did not ask in a recent call with Russian President Vladimir Putin about alleged Russian bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
When asked by the news site Axios about statements by a top U.S. commander that Russian was arming Taliban fighters who fought U.S. troops, Trump replied: "Well, we supplied weapons when they were fighting Russia, too."
Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Biden, in a statement said, "The most critical and sacred obligation of a commander-in-chief is to protect those who serve our nation in harm's way."
"But months after the U.S. intelligence community sounded the alarm — to Donald Trump and to our allies — that Russia was placing bounties on the heads of American servicemen and women in a war zone, our president continues to turn his back on those who put their lives on the line for our country, and on his own duty," Bates said.
"This continues an indefensible pattern of Donald Trump weakening the United States in the world in a manner that no American president ever has before, and it's absolutely despicable," he said.
In the Axios interview, Trump said he never asked or challenged Putin during their call Thursday on allegations, first reported by The New York Times in June, about a U.S. intelligence finding that Russia was paying Islamic fighters bounties for killing American troops in Afghanistan.
"No, that was a phone call to discuss other things," Trump told Axios.
"Frankly, that's an issue that many people said was fake news," Trump said, adding that "a lot of people" had said as much.
In brief exchange Wednesday with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House, Trump was asked if he thinks Russia did not put bounties on the heads of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan
"As I told you, I have certainly read about it and since then I've talked about it," Trump said.
He added that former Secretary of State "Colin Powell says it's not true and Colin Powell's not exactly someone that I'm a big fan of, Colin Powell says it's not true, other people say it's not true, if it were true I'd be very angry about it."
But Powell, a retired Army general, has not said that the bounty reports are false.
Powell earlier this month had said, "Our military commanders on the ground did not think that it was as serious a problem as the newspapers were reporting and television was reporting."
Powell added at the time, "It got kind of out of control before we really had an understanding of what had happened. I'm not sure we fully understand now."
Trump said several times in the Axios interview that intelligence reports of the bounties "never reached my desk."
But he did not directly answer when reporter Jonathan Swan repeatedly pointed out that the allegations reportedly had been included in the president's daily intelligence briefing.
Trump has previously cast doubt on the alleged bounties, and has said he was never briefed on the U.S. intelligence about them because it didn't meet the evidentiary standard for him to be notified.
But The New York Times, citing two officials familiar with the matter, reported late last month that Trump was provided a briefing in late February about Russia's alleged dealings. The Associated Press also reported that the bounty reports had been included in the president's daily intelligence briefings, which Trump told Axios he reads.
The White House and other Trump administration officials have claimed that the reports are unverified and that the president had not been briefed.
In the Axios interview, Trump was asked why he did not challenge Putin on a related issue: that Russia has supplied weapons to the Taliban.
Swan noted that Army Gen. John Nicholson, the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, had said that.
"Well, we supplied weapons when they were fighting Russia, too," Trump replied. "When they were fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan."
The president was referring to the U.S. arming from 1979 to 1989 of mujahedeen guerrilla forces, not the Taliban, fighting Soviet Union forces who were in Afghanistan to prop up that nation's Marxist government.
When Swan pointed out to Trump "that's a different era," Trump replied, "I'm just saying, we did that, too."
"I don't know, I didn't ask Nicholson about that. He was there for a long time, didn't have great success because you know he was there before me and then ultimately I made a change," Trump said.
Trump then said, "I have heard that" Russia has armed the Taliban.
"But — again, it's never reached my desk," he added.
Trump told Axios that his call with Putin focused on "nuclear proliferation, which is a very big subject, where they would like to do something and so would I."
"We discussed numerous things," Trump said, but "we did not discuss" the reported Russian bounties.
When Axios suggested Trump simply didn't believe the intelligence, the president did not answer that.
"It's interesting, you know, nobody ever brings up China," Trump instead said.
"They always bring Russia, Russia, Russia. If we can do something about 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'd be a great thing."
"It never reached my desk, you know why? Because they didn't think — intelligence — they didn't think it was real," Trump said.
"If it reached my desk, I would have done something."