President Donald Trump should immediately call upon Russian President Vladimir Putin to "halt his behavior — and do so publicly," after reports that the U.S. leader either ignored, or was unaware of, a Russian plot to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark told The Gazette.
The interview followed last week's publication of an editorial in USA Today in which Clark charged that Trump's response to reports of the bounty were weak, even if he wasn't briefed.
"This was a very bad thing not to have taken action on this," Clark, who was twice stationed at Fort Carson during his three decade-plus military career, told The Gazette.
Trump and the White House have repeatedly insisted that the president wasn't originally briefed because the information was unverified, even though it’s rare for intelligence to be confirmed without a shadow of doubt before it is presented to senior government decision-makers.
Officials have told The Associated Press and other news organizations that the information was included in one of the president's written daily briefings last year and again this year.
Trump has called reports of the intelligence assessments a “hoax” and has so far declined to address whether the U.S. has or will respond to Russia.
"What could have been done was a démarche to President Putin," Clark said. "It could have been delivered by the U.S. ambassador in Washington; it could have been a phone call to say 'knock it off.'
"Obviously, that hasn’t been done."
Clark, a former NATO supreme allied commander for Europe and a one-time Democratic candidate during the 2004 presidential race, said he wasn't surprised that Russia had been "dabbling" in Afghanistan, "but to actually offer bounties for killing Americans — that’s a big step."
It's not too late for Trump to take action, Clark said.
"The first thing is direct communication with Mr. Putin; tell him to stop it," he advised. "And then there needs to be either restitution or sanctions. If Mr. Putin denies it, put the sanctions on. It’s inconceivable that an action like this could be taken without decision by Mr. Putin himself."
Restitution could involve punishment for those involved or payment to the families of those harmed, he said. Regardless, the U.S. "has to take some kind of action on this."
"You can’t let this go."
If Trump does let it, go "it will invite other malign actors to take similar, even more grievous actions," he said.
"I think the real question is if President Trump is going to look out for the welfare and safety of American soldiers and service members, or is he going to bow to Putin?" Clark said. "He’s taken many steps that look like he’s trying to curry favor with Mr. Putin. And when he tries to do that for diplomatic reasons, you could disagree with that or maybe you’d agree with that.
"But when he accepts Mr. Putin putting bounties on our soldier and encouraging them to be killed — that's a line no president should accept."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.