By Peter Grier
Last Friday special counsel Robert Mueller accused 12 Russian military intelligence officials of hacking into US political institutions and meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign. The Justice Department indictment was impressively detailed, complete with names, dates, times, and tactics of the alleged computer offenses.
On Monday President Trump cast doubt on whether any of that description was true. Standing with Russian president Vladimir Putin after a summit in Helsinki, Finland, Mr. Trump said Mr. Putin had vehemently denied interfering in American politics. Trump added that in any case he saw no reason why Russia would have carried out such an operation.
In the short term, Trump’s questioning of the conclusions of his own intelligence agencies, while on stage with the man accused of ordering the cyber assault, will supercharge partisan debate in Washington over the propriety of the president’s Helsinki behavior. In the longer term, it points to an inevitable, and perhaps historic, clash between Trump’s deep-seated rejection of the idea that a foreign power tried to help elect him, and Mr. Mueller’s patient accumulation of facts detailing the extent of just such an effort.
If the indictment was an attempt to get Trump to take the issue seriously and speak directly to his Russian counterpart about consequences, it does not seem to have worked. Perhaps it backfired, as Trump pushed back against the notion that anything or anyone other than himself is responsible for his stunning 2016 triumph.
“The effort by some of the president’s team to contain or shape him has fundamentally failed … he has succeeded in breaking out and being true to himself, which has been pretty favorable to Putin,” said Thomas Wright, Director of the Brookings Institution Center on the United States and Europe, in a conference call with reporters following Monday’s summit.
Trump’s joint appearance with Putin was remarkable on many levels. It came at the end of a foreign swing in which the president had assailed NATO allies as deadbeats on defense spending and pictured the European Union primarily as a US economic foe. For two days prior to the Helsinki meeting Trump had relaxed at his own Scottish golf course, except perhaps for the time an ultra-light aircraft trailing a protest sign puttered by.
Then in the press conference following the meeting Trump was deferential to his Russian counterpart, declining, when asked directly, to offer any criticisms of Putin’s geopolitical behavior. Questioned about the alleged Russian election meddling, Trump voiced doubt, citing Putin’s strong denials. Then he segued into a discussion of Hillary Clinton’s server and other related issues – a detour whose details foreign audiences may have found difficult to follow.
Mixed views of summit
The good news is that major disaster at the summit was avoided, according to Alina Polyakova, a Russia expert and fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe. There was no deal struck trading US recognition of Russian gains in Ukraine for Russian concessions in Syria. There was no hint of softening about commitment of US troops in Europe.
On the other hand, the optics of the meeting, and the fact that it occurred at all, were everything Putin could have wanted, said Ms. Polyakova.
“This is the summit Putin has been waiting for his entire life,” she said.
Other observers thought the outcome of the day rather better than that. “It was a net positive for the US,” says retired Army Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, a senior fellow and military expert at Defense Priorities, a think tank in Washington.
Russia may have hacked into US political organizations, but bringing that up in the middle of a press conference would have been antagonistic, and certainly would not have changed Putin’s future behavior, says Lt. Col. Davis. And what’s wrong with negotiations to try and reach agreements of mutual benefit?
“Nobody gains from adversarial relations between Russia and the United States,” Davis says.
Summit aside, even some of Trump’s Republican allies in Washington are becoming increasingly critical of his dismissal of all aspects of the Mueller probe as a witch hunt of fake news carried out by hardened Democrats.
Evidence of hacking is not the same thing as evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, and the president needs to treat the former seriously even as he dismisses the latter, according to some Republicans. Statements from top elected GOP officials on Monday were generally restrained but drew clear contrasts with Trump’s conclusions.
“There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan.
“The Russians are not our friends and I entirely agree with the assessment of our intelligence community,” said Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.
“I disagree with the president’s comments,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce
Avoiding nuance, at his own risk?
Trump does not seem to grasp that he could be better off to accept the premise that Russia probably interfered in 2016, and then work backward from there, says Andrew Wright, an associate professor at Savannah Law School in Georgia and former assistant counsel to Vice President Al Gore.
He could say that he stands with America, and will defend it against all such attempts at meddling, and that he supports a full investigation into the matter. That’s happening anyway, and it’s politically better to get in front of such a probe, Wright says. It’s a time-honored political two-step that Trump does not appear to understand or embrace.
Accepting the possibility of foreign cyberattacks and vowing to defend America isn’t the same as denigrating one’s own election. But that’s how Trump seems to see things, say some analysts. “I don’t think we’re ever going to get him to acknowledge that. He doesn’t want to share his victory,” says Jamie Kirchick, a Brookings Institution visiting fellow.
The president seems very categorical, adds Wright. You’re an enemy or a friend. China is good or bad. He does not seem to grasp key nuances of presidential leadership, such as the fact that you can’t lead the Justice Department without having discussions with your attorney general about some things – and not about other things.
Yet Trump’s inflexibility, his desire to not apologize or look back, just invites more criticism.
“This president has transformed himself into flypaper for controversy,” Professor Wright says.
Meanwhile, special counsel Robert Mueller has been slowly gathering speed. Whenever his investigation rises to the surface, as it does by issuing indictments, its size and detail seem surprising. How that eventually reconciles itself with Trump’s denials about the very foundations of the investigation could determine the future of the Trump presidency.