Asked about Russian bounties, Trump says his phone call with Putin focused on ‘other things.’
President Trump said in a new interview that he had not raised concerns with President Vladimir V. Putin about intelligence suggesting that Russia covertly offered bounties for killing U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan in a recent phone call he had with the country’s leader.
“I have never discussed it with him,” Mr. Trump said in the interview, conducted on Tuesday by “Axios on HBO,” which released excerpts Wednesday morning. The full interview is scheduled to air next week.
Mr. Trump spoke with Mr. Putin by telephone last week, but during a public appearance on Monday, he declined to say whether he had raised the issue during the conversation. “We don’t talk about what we discussed, but we had plenty of discussion,” he told reporters.
But Mr. Trump was more direct when pressed by the Axios reporter Jonathan Swan on if he had confronted Mr. Putin about the intelligence, which was first reported by The New York Times.
“That was a phone call to discuss other things, and frankly that’s an issue that many people said was fake news,” he said.
Mr. Trump said the purpose of the call was “to discuss nuclear proliferation,” calling that issue “a much bigger problem than global warming.”
Although Mr. Trump cast the bounty allegation as a media fiction, U.S. intelligence analysts found evidence of the scheme credible, although some intelligence officials have higher confidence on the question than others. The intelligence was provided to Mr. Trump in a written briefing in February, but it is unclear whether he read it.
He told Axios that the issue “never reached my desk” because intelligence officials “didn’t think it was real.”
“If it reached my desk I would have done something about it,” he said, adding, “I comprehend extraordinarily well.”
Mr. Trump’s comments to Axios were made public the morning after he held a coronavirus briefing in which he lamented how his approval ratings were lower than two top government medical experts and once again defended the false claim that hydroxychloroquine was a “cure” for the virus.
His dismissive remarks about the bounties, which amounted to a verbal shrug, along with his wandering rhetoric at the briefing offered more evidence that last week’s brief foray into greater political discipline had ended quickly, with polls showing him considerably behind former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and many Americans unhappy with his response to the pandemic.
On Tuesday, he faced fresh questions about why he had retweeted a viral video the day before that included false claims about hydroxychloroquine.
And he devolved into self-pity, at one point bemoaning the fact that Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, and Dr. Deborah L. Birx, his administration’s top coronavirus coordinator, have high approval ratings even as his own have sagged.
“They’re highly thought of — but nobody likes me,” he said.
“It can only be my personality,” he concluded.
Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden are locked in a tight race for Georgia, while at least one of the state’s two Senate seats currently appears on track to remain in Republican hands, according to a new poll of voters there released Wednesday.
The survey, conducted by Monmouth University, shows Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden tied with 47 percent support each and only three percent of registered voters indicating that they were undecided.
It also shows Republicans ahead in both of the state’s crucial Senate races. In the tighter of the two contests, Senator David Perdue, the Republican incumbent, currently leads Jon Ossoff, his Democratic challenger, by six percentage points, according to the poll.
Senator Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to her seat late last year by Gov. Brian Kemp, must defend her seat in a special election in November that will feature candidates from both parties; she leads the large group with 26 percent support and is followed by another Republican, Representative Doug Collins, who garnered 20 percent support. The leading Democrat, Matt Lieberman, was the choice of just 14 percent of voters, while another Democrat, the Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, had the support of 9 percent.
The Monmouth poll of 402 registered voters comes as some Democrats are pressing the Biden campaign to expand its ambitions and compete aggressively in states like Georgia, where a win could help solidify an Electoral College victory and deal a damaging blow to Mr. Trump’s brand of politics. The Monmouth poll of Georgia voters was conducted by telephone from July 23 to 27 and has a margin of error of +/- 5 percentage points.
Georgia has long been seen by Democrats as a fast-changing state where electoral success could help carve a new path to the presidency. Mr. Biden’s campaign has mostly focused on a handful of more traditional battleground states in the months since he became the presumptive nominee.
On Tuesday, the Biden campaign announced a round of key staff hires in Georgia, including a state director, a pair of senior advisers, and other top positions.
But the campaign has yet to spend any money on advertising in the state and the Trump campaign has invested only about $150,000 there so far — a signal that, at least at this stage of the race, neither side is ready to jump into what could be a costly contest.
By comparison, Mr. Trump’s campaign has spent far larger sums in more traditional battleground states like Florida, where his campaign has spent more than $17 million since the general election began in earnest in April, according to Advertising Analytics, an ad tracking firm. Mr. Biden has also spent heavily in Florida, investing roughly $8 million on the airways there.
The president floats the idea of giving his renomination speech in Washington, a likely Hatch Act violation.
Mr. Trump said Wednesday he may give his renomination speech in August from the White House, an idea that took some of his advisers by surprise and that many thought was an unlikely scenario that would be nixed by the White House counsel’s office.
“It’s something we’re thinking about,” Mr. Trump told reporters as he departed from the South Lawn of the White House for a day trip to Texas. He said he would be announcing the location of his speech “fairly soon.”
Giving a political speech from the White House would be a violation of the Hatch Act. While the president himself is technically exempt from the act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activities while on the job, everyone who works for him is subject to it.
“I suppose if he was determined to hold his iPhone to his face, he could do it,” said Norm Eisen, the former ethics czar in the Obama administration. “But from the speechwriters at the White House, to the people setting up the lights and the teleprompters, to the staff escorting people to be there for this event, it would be a wholesale conspiracy to violate both our laws and norms.”
He added that it was important “to comply with not only the strict letter of the law, but the spirit.”
On Tuesday evening, a group of aides, including Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, met with top campaign advisers at the White House to discuss potential plans for the four nights of the Republican National Convention, which Mr. Trump announced last week he was canceling because of the pandemic.
The group did not settle on a location for Mr. Trump’s renomination speech, people familiar with the conversation said, but they discussed having Mr. Trump speak from a critical battleground state.
Republican officials and campaign advisers have just under three weeks to figure out a new location for the programming they had been set to hold in Jacksonville, Fla., and to finalize a roster of speakers. Even without a full convention, officials said, they are set on capitalizing on a week of earned media highlighting what they see as Mr. Trump’s accomplishments and record.
On Monday, Mr. Trump announced he would visit Charlotte, N.C., the original host city of the convention, on Aug. 24 to visit a few hundred delegates who are still planning to convene there for a day of convention business, and for the official roll call where the president is renominated. Mr. Trump is not expected to give extended remarks during the visit.
‘Do not hold grudges’: Photos emerge of Biden’s talking points on Kamala Harris.
Written on top was the name of someone thought to be a top contender: Senator Kamala Harris of California. Five talking points followed:
“Do not hold grudges.” “Campaigned with me & Jill.” “Talented.” “Great help to campaign.” “Great respect for her.”
The notes about Ms. Harris — which were captured by photographers and reported by The Associated Press — indicate that he was prepared to field questions about her.
That may not mean anything about her likelihood (or not) of being picked. Mr. Biden — who is often quite fond of talking — had relatively little to say when asked on Tuesday about his vice-presidential search. But he did tell reporters one thing: He will make his selection next week.
Representative Louie Gohmert, who refuses to wear masks in the Capitol, tests positive for the coronavirus.
Representative Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican who has frequently refused to wear a mask in the Capitol, tested positive for the coronavirus on Wednesday ahead of a planned trip with Mr. Trump on Air Force One, officials familiar with the matter said.
The results immediately sent a shudder through the Capitol, where Mr. Gohmert has actively participated in multiple congressional hearings this week, including Tuesday’s Judiciary Committee session with Attorney General William P. Barr.
Lawmakers and Mr. Barr were seated more than six feet apart during the hearing, but reporters spotted an unmasked Mr. Gohmert outside the hearing room exchanging words with Mr. Barr and in close proximity to him. He also participated in a hearing held by the Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday, without wearing a mask, possibly spreading the virus.
Mr. Gohmert is among a group of House Republicans who have pointedly refused to wear masks in many instances while in the Capitol in recent weeks despite warnings from public health experts and an outbreak in his home state. He told CNN last month that he did not wear a mask because he did not have coronavirus.
“But if I get it, you’ll never see me without a mask,” he said.
Democrats were furious at the news, and both parties spent Wednesday morning scrambling to retrace Mr. Gohmert’s steps. The House Judiciary Committee was waiting for official guidance from Congress’s attending physician. It is a daunting task since Mr. Gohmert is a frequent schmoozer who could have come into close contact with dozens of fellow lawmakers and aides this week alone.
“I’m concerned about the irresponsible behavior of many of the republicans who have chosen to consistently flout well established public health guidance,” said Representative Hakeem Jeffries, Democrat of New York and a member of the Judiciary Committee. He pleaded with Republicans like Mr. Gohmert to put on masks or go home.
Members of Congress have been flying between Washington and their home states — some of which are experiencing serious outbreaks — weekly, and they are not required to be tested. Mr. Gohmert only received a test because he was scheduled to be in close proximity to the president.
Trump has quietly retreated from Michigan’s airwaves.
With Mr. Biden building a steady advantage in the polls, a state that Mr. Trump won narrowly in 2016 threatens to move more firmly back into the Democratic column in 2020.
Since the end of June, Mr. Trump has spent more money on ads in 10 other states — with Michigan falling behind even much smaller states like Iowa and Nevada — and in recent days Mr. Trump’s campaign stopped buying ads in Michigan entirely.
The Biden campaign has more than tripled what Mr. Trump spent on television in Michigan in the last month, by far the most lopsided advantage of any swing state where both are advertising. And in Detroit, the state’s largest media market, the Trump campaign last ran a television ad, outside of national ad buys that include the state, on July 3, according to data from Advertising Analytics.
Mr. Trump faces a trifecta of troubles in Michigan, according to political strategists and state polling: reduced support among less educated white voters in a contest against Mr. Biden compared with Hillary Clinton; motivated Black voters in the state’s urban centers; and suburban voters who continue to flee Mr. Trump’s divisive brand of politics nationwide.
“Of all the states he won in 2016, Trump would be most hard-pressed to keep Michigan in his column this time around,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster for Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC.
Tired of watching Republicans with their own checkered ethics backgrounds attack Mr. Biden over his son’s business dealings in Ukraine, a group of Democratic officials on Wednesday introduced an organization intended to target corruption by congressional Republicans.
The group, the Congressional Integrity Project, released the first of what its organizers say will be a series of reports called “Covering for Corruption.” The five-page document aims to highlight what the group calls business self-dealing by Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, accusations of which have been reported in the past but that Democrats largely did not highlight during his 2016 re-election campaign or while pushing back against Mr. Johnson’s attempts to investigate the Bidens.
“For too long, members of Congress like Ron Johnson have put their own personal interests before the needs of the American public, covering for Trump’s corruption and ignoring their oversight responsibilities,” said Kyle Herrig, the new group’s executive director. “While conservatives try to distract the American people with baseless, partisan investigations, we will use every tool at our disposal to stop officials like Johnson from misleading and manipulating voters.”
Of course, few Washington politicians have used the federal government to boost their personal business interests more than Mr. Trump has, so it remains to be seen how effective the new organization will be in damaging the political reputation of Mr. Johnson, who doesn’t face re-election until 2022, and other future targets.
Self-identified Democrats outnumber Republicans in most surveys, sometimes by a wide margin. This might just mean that there are simply more Democrats than Republicans. But to critics, the partisan makeup of most public polls is self-evidently out of step with a closely divided country.
There are many reasons the polls might ultimately prove wrong in November, as they did four years ago, but there’s no serious evidence that the polls are systematically missing Republican voters. There’s more evidence to the contrary — that the polls represent Republicans just fine, and Mr. Trump still trails.
If it turned out that Democrats were far likelier to respond to telephone surveys than Republicans, then the public polls could be systematically biased — and the critics would be vindicated at the ballot box. But this does not appear to be the case. The polls that are weighted by party registration or primary vote history offer nearly the same picture as those that are not. Arguably, they offer a picture even worse for Republicans.
A favored ad strategy for Democrats: Highlight Republicans downplaying the virus.
It’s become a familiar — and effective — ad motif in the presidential election for Democrats: Over a cascade of sound bites of President Trump playing down the coronavirus crisis, a graph showing the number of deaths from the virus curves up exponentially.
This week, Jon Ossoff, the Democratic challenger in one of two Georgia Senate races, unveiled a new ad of the same style that spliced in similar comments from his opponent, Senator David Perdue.
The message is a hauntingly familiar one. “The risk to the American people remains very low,” Mr. Trump is heard saying, as an on-screen graph notes 15 coronavirus deaths. That is followed by a clip of Mr. Perdue, saying “the risk of this virus still remains low,” as the death tracker hits 24. Both are heard comparing the coronavirus to the flu, and then downplaying the number of deaths by saying the projections initially had the count higher, while the graph ticks above 100,000 deaths in the United States.
For the final five seconds, the ad switches to a more traditional negative attack. A narrator declares over a series of black-and-white photographs a familiar set of criticisms directed not this time at Mr. Trump but at Mr. Purdue: “ignored the medical experts,” “downplayed the crisis” and “left us unprepared.”
The seemingly unending pandemic, and the accompanying economic fallout, has severely hampered Mr. Trump’s re-election effort, as he trails Mr. Biden in numerous national and battleground state polls.
It’s clearly the one of the main topics on Americans’ minds, and it is likely that many more ads like Mr. Ossoff’s will begin to run in states like North Carolina, Arizona, Montana and Maine where Democrats are growing increasingly hopeful at turning the Senate blue.
Reporting was contributed by Nate Cohn, Nick Corasaniti, Michael Crowley, Reid J. Epstein, Nicholas Fandos, Shane Goldmacher, Kathleen Gray, Thomas Kaplan, Annie Karni and Matt Stevens.