Trump ‘never discussed’ Russian bounties with Putin during 8 recent calls

President Donald Trump said he has not asked Russian President Vladimir Putin about alleged bounties paid to Taliban militants to kill U.S. troops despite numerous telephone conversations between the two leaders during the last month, according to an exclusive report by Axios.

“I have never discussed it with him,” Trump revealed during a Tuesday interview with Jonathan Swan of “Axios on HBO,” a day after deflecting questions about his latest talk with Putin last Thursday, saying “We don’t talk about what we discussed, but we had plenty of discussion.”

» LAST WEEK: U.S. airstrikes kill 40 Taliban militants in Afghanistan

During the sit-down with Axios, however, Trump opened up more about his Thursday call with Putin while continuing to dismiss the validity of the bounty claims, saying U.S. intelligence officials “didn’t think it was real.”

When Swan asked Trump directly if he mentioned the bounties to Putin last week, the president answered, “No, that was a phone call to discuss other things, and frankly, that’s an issue that many people said was fake news.”

Trump also continued to maintain that he wasn’t briefed on the bounty intelligence until after The New York Times broke the story of the scheme June 26.

“If it reached my desk, I would have done something about it,” Trump said.

According to U.S. intelligence officials, information that Russia offered bounties to Taliban militants for killing American troops was included in Trump’s written intelligence briefing in late February, but it is unclear whether he read it, according to The New York Times.

Trump has spoken to Putin at least eight times since, according to reports.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said his military commanders were briefed on the bounty issue in January, and that he first saw an intelligence paper about it in February.

Earlier this month, Esper said the intelligence was taken seriously, but there was no credible confirmation that bounties had actually been carried out. He said the Defense Department would continue to investigate and the U.S. would respond if necessary.

Trump has also said he would “respond appropriately” if the intelligence is proven true.

But that stands in contrast to the president’s dismissal of the bounty intelligence as “just another hoax” by the media and for his history of reluctance to challenge Putin on any pressing issues.

On Wednesday, Joe Biden’s campaign called Trump “absolutely despicable” for not confronting Putin on the alleged bounties in his eight conversations.

“The most critical and sacred obligation of a commander-in-chief is to protect those who serve our nation in harm’s way,” the Biden campaign’s rapid response director Andrew Bates said in a statement. “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 warzone, our president continues to turn his back on those who put their lives on the line for our country, and on his own duty.

“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.”

The White House, however, has said there was a lack of consensus in the intelligence community about the bounty intelligence.

In excerpts from the interview released Wednesday, Trump also downplayed evidence of Russian military and financial support for the Taliban, suggesting that bounties against U.S. soldiers could be considered payback for America’s backing of fighters opposing the Soviet occupation of that country during the 1980s, The New York Times reported.

“Well, we supplied weapons when they were fighting Russia, too,” Trump said.

The full interview is scheduled to air next Monday on HBO.