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Trump: I will 'absolutely ask' Putin about meddling

During a joint press conference with Prime Minister Theresa May, President Trump says he has a good relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Posted: Jul 14, 2018 8:09 AM
Updated: Jul 14, 2018 8:13 AM

It is tough to believe that any President other than Donald Trump would hold a summit with Russia days after special counsel Robert Mueller delivered a sensational indictment that accuses the Kremlin of a deeply penetrating attack on American democracy.

It's even less probable that another commander-in-chief would take the meeting without administering a very public dressing down of Russian President Vladimir Putin before the cameras over accusations of a staggeringly broad election-meddling operation in 2016.

Yet Trump is planning to go ahead with the talks in Helsinki on Monday despite the charges against 12 Russian intelligence officers handed down by Mueller on Friday.

And if the President's own comments during his current trip to Europe or his past behavior is any guide, he will make only a ritual complaint to a leader he has often treated as a hero.

Speaking to reporters Friday before the indictment became public, Trump pledged to raise election meddling on Monday -- almost as a favor to the press -- but gave the impression that he was unlikely to do too much to challenge Putin's certain denials.

"I don't think you'll have any 'Gee, I did it, I did it, you got me,' " Trump said in Britain.

"There won't be a Perry Mason here, I don't think. But you never know what happens, right? But I will absolutely firmly ask the question."

Expectations that Trump will take on Putin publicly over the election meddling -- as French President Emmanuel Macron did when he blasted the influence of Russian propaganda outlets last year only a few weeks into his mandate -- were also undercut by the White House's reaction to the indictment.

"The stories you heard about the 12 Russians yesterday took place during the Obama Administration, not the Trump Administration. Why didn't they do something about it, especially when it was reported that President Obama was informed by the FBI in September, before the Election?" Trump tweeted Saturday from his property in Scotland.

On Friday, White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters pointed out that there was no allegation in the document unveiled by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that any Americans knew they were corresponding with Russians or that any US citizen had committed a crime. She also said there was no indication that the conspiracy had changed the result of the election.

"Today's charges include no allegations of knowing involvement by anyone on the campaign and no allegations that the alleged hacking affected the election result. This is consistent with what we have been saying all along," Walters said.

There was, however, a glaring absence of any condemnation of Russia's action by Trump, despite the fact that his job primarily involves the defense of American sovereignty and democracy.

Perhaps the administration will move in the coming days, for instance by sanctioning the GRU intelligence officers named in the indictment, who are highly unlikely to ever travel to the United States for a day in court.

But the administration's tepid initial reaction hardly heralds a showdown between Trump and Putin in Finland.

Such low expectations mean that a summit that was always going to be mysterious -- given the oddness of Trump's relationship with Putin and the suspicion of critics that he is beholden to the Russian leader in some way -- is now going to be deeply surreal.

Trump has chased summit too long to cancel it

Despite demands by critics to ditch the talks, Trump, who has chased a stand-alone meeting with Putin for months, simply has too much invested in the encounter to cancel it.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders confirmed Friday evening that the summit was on -- surprising no one.

Going against the counsel of his advisers, the President has pursued a lonely quest to improve relations with Russia, and rarely criticizes Putin, despite much of the rest of his administration adopting an authentically hard line toward Russia.

The President, who spent the last week castigating NATO allies and dividing the alliance in a way that will certainly have appealed to Putin, knew about the impending indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers before he left the United States earlier this week.

In hindsight, therefore, his comments at a news conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May suggest the indictment -- which comprehensively debunks claims by Trump supporters that there was no election meddling -- will do nothing to purge his suspicion of the Mueller probe.

"I think that we're being hurt very badly by the, I would call it, the witch hunt -- I would call it the rigged witch hunt," Trump said at Chequers, May's official country residence.

"I think that really hurts our country and it really hurts our relationship with Russia. I think that we would have a chance to have a very good relationship with Russia and a very good chance -- a very good relationship with President Putin," Trump added.

When Russia responded to Friday's indictment alleging a broad effort to hack the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee as well as some state election infrastructure, it mirrored Trump's own rhetoric in a way that is unlikely to have been a coincidence.

"Washington is struggling to reanimate old 'fake news' about alleged 'Russian interference in the US presidential election in 2016,' " said a statement issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry.

"Obviously, the purpose of this bogus story is to spoil the atmosphere before the Russian-American summit," the statement said, before adding with a Machiavellian twist that instigators of the intrigue would sooner or later be held accountable for the damage they "continue to inflict on American democracy."

Putin will presumably offer a similar approach to Trump on Monday, empathizing with his complaints that the Mueller investigation, which has now laid 191 criminal charges against 32 people and three companies, is nothing but "fake news" and a "witch hunt."

That's one reason why so many of Trump's critics are worried about the summit -- which includes a one-on-one session with only interpreters present -- going ahead.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called on Trump to cancel.

"Glad-handing with Vladimir Putin on the heels of these indictments would be an insult to our democracy," the New York Democrat said.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who's a longtime Putin antagonist, said Trump should not go to Helsinki unless he is ready to show the Russian leader that "there will be a serious price to pay for his ongoing aggression towards the United States and democracies around the world."

The case for canceling the summit would be that it is inappropriate for the President of the United States to grant Putin the legitimacy of a meeting on such a grand stage at a time when Washington is accusing the Kremlin of an audacious assault on the integrity of a US election.

And given the evidence of the Russian assault, the idea that an American president could trust Putin is highly improbable.

"I would not have the summit," Tom Donilon, an Obama administration national security adviser, said Friday on CNN.

"The President has never really come to grips with the entire list of active hostility against the United States by the Russian Federation directed by President Putin," Donilon said. "I would not go forward with this thing,"

But former CIA Director Michael Hayden told CNN's Jake Tapper that the summit should happen -- with one big proviso.

"This is your chance, Mr. President, you have got a document beyond speculation. ... Here we have got solid, detailed forensic evidence that the President can make use of.

"As a citizen now, I would say let's do it and then I want to watch what the President does."

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