It would have been better if he kept his mouth shut. With mounting evidence about a Russian plot to pay bounties to fighters in Afghanistan to target United States and coalition troops, one might have thought an Army veteran like Lee Zeldin would sympathize with the American military personnel who may have come under attack, but that would be wrong. When faced with evidence of a high-level Russian scheme to funnel cash rewards to killers he might have remained cautious in denying its veracity, but he did not.
The highest levels in the White House were made aware of the information in February. Whether the president saw the information in at least one written daily brief is not clear, though it seems reasonable to take him at his word that he did not, since he is not one to read when he thinks he does not have to. Mr. Zeldin unwittingly supports the many reports that the president does not study much of the material he is given, noting that intelligence officials “decided against bringing it up during a presidential briefing,” hoping apparently that the boss would remain true to form and not crack his briefing book open.
Despite protests from the president’s closest allies, the evidence of the Russian payment scheme is convincing, and based on interrogation of detainees and electronic intercepts. C.I.A. officials in Afghanistan are said to have known about the payment plot for some time. Individual Afghanis have been named as intermediaries between the Russian covert agency and militants. One early tip-off was a $500,000 hoard of United States dollars discovered during an American raid on a Taliban outpost.
In a contradictory statement released on the Friday before the July Fourth weekend, Representative Zeldin downplayed the allegation and suggested it was based on false reports. He said the intelligence about a Russian incentive program was “strongly disputed,” but later concluded that it was a “serious allegation” about which he supported “ongoing investigations.” Unfortunately, in muddying the waters, Mr. Zeldin has chosen to protect the president, and has revealed himself to be indifferent that a bounty may have put on his onetime fellow troops’ lives.