Trump’s disturbing exchange with Putin on election interference

Putin says Trump accepted his denials about election interference. Trump’s story isn’t much different.

President Trump reaches to shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit on Friday in Hamburg, Germany. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
President Trump reaches to shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit on Friday in Hamburg, Germany. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

President Trump accepted Vladimir Putin’s claim that Russian officials didn’t interfere in last year’s presidential election during their meeting at the G20 Summit on Friday, according to remarks Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made to reporters after it concluded.

Lavrov also said Trump and Putin agreed to create a bilateral group to discuss election meddling.

The American account of the meeting is not inconsistent with Lavrov’s version.

During a news conference, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that Trump brought up the issue of election interference during the meeting with Putin. Tillerson said Putin “denied such involvement, as I think he has in the past.”

Trump and Putin have in fact used the same talking points to dismiss Russian interference in the election.

“[W]hat the two presidents, I think rightly, focused on is how we move forward,” added Tillerson, who was awarded the Russian Order of Friendship by Putin in 2012. “How do we move forward from here because it’s not clear to me that we will ever come to some agreed upon resolution of that question, between the two nations, so the question is what do we do now?”

Asked if Trump was “unequivocal in his view that Russia interfered with the election,” Tillerson reiterated that the president spent his time talking about “how we go forward.”

If Lavrov’s claims are true, President Trump is accepting the word of a Russian autocrat over the consensus conclusion of the US intelligence community. Trump’s campaign is current the subject of a web of investigations for possible collusion with Russia.

Tillerson also alluded to the bilateral commission to discuss election interference.

“The two leaders also acknowledged the challenges of cyber threats and interference in the democratic processes of the United States and other countries,” he said. “And agreed to explore creating a framework around which the two countries can work together to better understand how to deal with these cyber threats. Both in terms of how these tools are used to interfere with the internal affairs of our countries, but also how these tools are used to threaten infrastructure, how these tools are used from a terrorism standpoint, as well.”

Trump is apparently willing to create “a bilateral group” to discuss election interference with the very country the intelligence community concluded interfered in the last Presidential election and continues to interfere in American politics.

‘Nobody really knows’

Tillerson’s characterization of what Trump said during his meeting with Putin is consistent with Trump’s declaration that “nobody really knows” who meddled in the 2016 election during his news conference on Thursday in Poland.

Trump publicly cast doubt upon the intelligence community’s findings regarding Russian interference. Asked by a reporter if he’d say “once and for all, yes or no, say that Russia definitive interfered with the 2016 election,” Trump refused.

“It could have been other people in other countries,” he said.

Hours ahead of his meeting with Putin, Trump followed that up with an incoherent tweet blaming former Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta for not doing more to prevent Russian interference in the months leading up to the election.

The only people in the room for the meeting between the American and Russian presidents were Trump, Tillerson, Putin, Lavrov, and translators. The New York Times reported that Russian wanted more people to attend, but Trump’s team “insisted that the meeting be kept small to avoid leaks.”

After Trump met with Lavrov and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak at the White House the day after he fired then-FBI Director James Comey in May, the New York Times broke news that Trump told the Russian officials, “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job… I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

Comey was overseeing an active investigation into the Trump campaign for possible collusion with Russia at the time.

The Times report, which was based on “a document summarizing the meeting” that was read to reporters by an unnamed American official, wasn’t denied by White House officials.

Putin capitalizes on favorable optics

Before their private discussion, Trump and Putin shared a laugh at the expense of journalists.

Putin has been linked with the murder of journalists critical of his regime and prominent opposition figures. In late 2015, then-candidate Trump dismissed reports about Putin’s involvement in the killings, saying, “They are allegations. Yeah sure there are allegations. I’ve read those allegations over the years. But nobody’s proven that he’s killed anybody, as far as I’m concerned.”

Trump has been waging his own war against the media, and attacked the American press during his news conference on Thursday in Poland — comments press freedom experts worry could inspire autocratic rulers to crack down on journalists in their countries.

Meanwhile, Russian dissident Garry Kasparov noted that Putin is already using the favorable optics of his handshake with Trump to bolster his own image in Russia.

Both on the campaign trail and as president, Trump has staunchly refused to criticize Putin. He claims to have no business interests in Russia despite his adult children saying otherwise. He’s said contradictory things about whether he had any relationship with Putin before taking office. He reportedly unsuccessfully sought to reverse sanctions the Obama administration imposed on Russian for interfering in the 2016 presidential election as soon as he took office.