The White House is signaling that President Donald Trump will not raise the issue of election meddling with Russian President Vladimir Putin when the pair meet in person for the first time at G20 summit in Germany on Friday. As CNN reports:
“There is little expectation among Trump’s national security team that the President will bring up Russia’s meddling in last year’s presidential election during the meeting, according to administration officials and another person close to the White House.
“Instead, he’s likely to engage Putin in a conversation about Russia’s support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and the increasingly tense military situation in the civil-war-torn nation. Trump is also likely to raise Russia’s actions in Ukraine, though Syria is at the top of his agenda, according to administration officials.”
But if Trump meets his own national security team’s very low expectations, and doesn’t discuss election interference with Putin at all, it will be akin to hand-delivering an open invitation to Russia to interfere in the 2018 midterms and beyond.
We know that Russia interfered in 2016, and intends to interfere in the future. By not taking the opportunity to make a public show of standing up to Putin, Trump risks reinforcing the very perception he has strained so vehemently to avert, one that lies at the heart of the federal investigation that has dogged his presidency: That he supported, or at least acquiesced to, Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign.
Worse, he will be signaling to Russia, and other hostile foreign powers, that he is unconcerned about foreign meddling in U.S. elections in the future, and will do nothing to stop it.
By not raising the issue with Putin, Trump will be saying, essentially: Go ahead. Hack away.
Rather than assuaging public concern about Trump’s intentions with Putin, his own National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, is already lowering expectations for the meeting. As USA Today reports, on the one hand McMaster is claiming that Trump has a strong policy against Russian interference, telling reporters that the president intends “to confront Russia’s destabilizing behavior - whether it’s cyber threats, whether it’s political subversion here in Europe and elsewhere.” But McMaster also admitted that for the Trump-Putin meeting, “There’s no specific agenda. It’s really going to be whatever the president wants to talk about.”
Making it more likely that Trump won’t bring up election meddling, Trump has for months chosen to dismiss the conclusions of intelligence agencies, instead opting to create his own alternative reality about Russia. He has called the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election “a taxpayer-funded charade” and media coverage of it “FAKE NEWS” about “phony Russian stories.”
As the Russia investigation gathers steam, though, the facts and evidence are becoming too overwhelming to ignore.
The public has known since December that the CIA concluded that Russia interfered in the election in order to help Trump and undermine Hillary Clinton, including by providing hacked Democratic National Committee emails to WikiLeaks. Since January, the public has known that the FBI, CIA, and Director of National Intelligence concluded with “high confidence” that Putin ordered a comprehensive assault on our democracy, including orchestrated disinformation campaigns, and that Russian entities hacked the DNC. And, as we’ve more recently discovered, Russian actors also made headway towards hacking computer election systems in 21 states, albeit - for now, at least - without altering vote totals or election outcomes.
As officials with the Department of Homeland Security and FBI and outside cybersecurity experts have warned, Russia’s designs did not end in 2016; they fully expect Russia to step up its efforts in future elections, including the midterms that are 16 months away. In a sane world, the federal government would be engaged in a full court press to thwart all efforts to sabotage future elections.
Instead, Trump is focused on the non-issue of voter fraud - a politicized farce that will likely further undermine our democracy by violating citizens’ privacy and potentially making it harder for many citizens to vote. And he continues to try to confuse the public about what is known about Russian interference in our election - and the possibility of more to come.
On the one hand, Trump claims the Russia interference story is “fake news,” but on the other he seems to admit it happened - and seeks to blame former President Obama for it. After The Post’s in-depth June 23 report on the Obama administration’s struggles to hold Russia accountable for the interference, Trump tweeted, “Since the Obama Administration was told way before the 2016 Election that the Russians were meddling, why no action? Focus on them, not T!” He seemed, then, to admit the meddling did indeed occur, but that he bears no culpability for it or for any future interference.
Trump has an opportunity this week to stand up to protect American democracy. When he meets Putin, he has a choice: He can continue to portray intelligence community assessments, federal investigations, and news media coverage of Russian election interference as a “hoax,” or he can act like the leader of the United States of America.
To meet Putin and not bring this up at all would demonstrate that despite his “make America great” sloganeering, Trump is either indifferent to the Russian attacks, or is too afraid to stand up to Putin to stop them. Can the American people trust their president to defend the basic infrastructure of our democracy, or will he cave to the Russian president who wants to attack and undermine it?
Sarah Posner is a reporter and the author of “God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters.” Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones and many other publications.