Whatever Donald Trump had hoped to get out of his summit with Vladimir Putin, the special counsel looking into Russian hacking of the 2016 US election has just changed the game.
The US president’s goals for the meeting on Monday in Helsinki had always been unclear. But now Trump is under pressure — including from several members of Congress from his own party — to finally confront Putin once and for all over trying to sabotage the election that put Trump in the White House.
Democrats called on him to scrap the summit in protest. That’s not happening, the White House said on Saturday. And there is no sign that Trump will demand that Putin turn over the 12 Russian intelligence officials that Robert Mueller indicted on Friday — and they likely will never stand trial.
The indictment handed down in Washington alleges that 12 Russian military intelligence officers hacked into the computers of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign and the Democratic Party and released tens of thousands of private communications in a sweeping conspiracy by the Kremlin to meddle in the vote.
Monday’s meeting in Helsinki has thus become a pivotal test of Trump’s strength and will to defend the integrity of elections — something he hasn’t done so far.
“It will be somewhat more difficult for him to simply go through the motions,” said Daniel Fried, who served as assistant secretary of state for Europe under President George W Bush. “The point is to send Putin a very clear message: Stay out of our elections.”
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said the indictments add to evidence confirming an “extensive plot” by the Kremlin to sow discord among American voters, attack the 2016 election, and undermine faith in democracy.
“President Trump must be willing to confront Putin from a position of strength and demonstrate that there will be a serious price to pay for his ongoing aggression towards the United States and democracies around the world,” McCain, the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, said in a statement.
“If President Trump is not prepared to hold Putin accountable, the summit in Helsinki should not move forward.”
To no one’s surprise, Trump focused his anger not on Putin but his predecessor, former president Barack Obama, in a series of tweets on Saturday morning from his Turnberry golf club in Scotland.
“The stories you heard about the 12 Russians yesterday took place during the Obama Administration, not the Trump Administration,” Trump wrote. “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?”
In a subsequent tweet, Trump questioned why the FBI didn’t take possession of the Democratic National Committee server that was hacked by the Russians, and appeared to insinuate that a unsubstantiated and unexplained conspiracy involving the “Deep State”.
Former FBI director James Comey said last year Democrats had opted to give the server to a third party that shared its analysis with the FBI, rather than turning it over directly to the government.
The tweets followed remarks at a news conference Friday where Trump belittled the idea of challenging the Russian president over election interference during a press conference on Friday just before the criminal charges were announced, though Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had warned Trump earlier in the week the indictments were coming.
“I will absolutely, firmly ask the question” to Putin, Trump said at a news conference on Friday with UK Prime Minister Theresa May. But he suggested there was little point to the exercise.
“I don’t think you’ll have any ‘Gee, I did it, I did it, you got me,’” Trump said.
Trump has previously shown little appetite for pressing the issue, telling reporters after meeting with Putin in Vietnam last November that he was done discussing it and that he believed the Russian leader’s denials were sincere.
“He said he didn’t meddle. He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One after the meeting. “And I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it.”
Some lawmakers from his own party say that was no longer enough.
Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a frequent critic of the president, said Trump must do more than ask.
“Mr President, as today’s indictments reaffirm, election interference is not a question to be asked of Vladimir Putin, but a statement to be made to Vladimir Putin: You interfered in our elections,” Flake said on Twitter.
House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, a California Republican, said in a statement Friday that Trump “should use the indictments to challenge” Putin at the meeting.
The White House’s initial reaction to the indictments was defensive and didn’t include any criticism of the Russian government or its indicted operatives, all of whom were identified as officials in Moscow’s main military intelligence agency, the GRU.
The Russians are charged with stealing user names and passwords of people working in Clinton’s presidential campaign, including its chairman John Podesta, and hacking into the computer networks of other Democratic party organisations.
Trump has suggested at his stops in Europe that his primary goal for his meeting with Putin is a better relationship, though he also said he would discuss Russia’s incursions into Ukraine, the civil war in Syria and nuclear proliferation.
“We go into that meeting not looking for so much,” he told reporters at a news conference Thursday following a NATO summit in Brussels.
“I didn’t go in with high expectations,” Trump told reporters. “We do have political problem where – you know in the United States we have this stupidity going on. Pure stupidity. But it makes it very hard to do something with Russia. Anything you do, it’s always going to be, ‘Oh, Russia, he loves Russia.’”
The indictments are the most detailed explanation so far of how units of Russia’s GRU attempted to influence the 2016 election by stealing Democratic emails, then releasing them in ways meant to dominate news headlines as voters made up their minds.
Prosecutors also detailed a second Russian operation targeting the infrastructure that Americans use to cast their ballots and the officials that oversee those elections locally.
American intelligence agencies have concluded that Putin personally ordered a campaign to undermine “public faith in the US democratic process” with the goal of hurting Clinton’s candidacy and ultimately helping to elect Trump.