Trump’s Tainted Helsinki Talks With Putin
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When President Donald Trump meets with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki today he already will have given Russia’s leader a gift that eluded Putin’s predecessors throughout the Cold War’s long and perilous decades: bragging rights for having helped separate the U.S. from its Western European allies.
Trump — who began his recent European diplomatic tour by attacking Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, before repeatedly undermining and insulting the U.K.’s Prime Minister, Theresa May — told CBS’s Jeff Glor over the weekend that he considered the European Union to be America’s “foe.” He described Russia and China as foes in the same interview, too, but that was something of an afterthought. When asked to identify his “biggest foe globally right now,” his first response was the EU.
Trump, of course, has also gone out of his way to compliment and coddle Putin and his representatives in Washington ever since he launched his presidential bid in 2015. He has rarely criticized Putin during that period, diplomatic and strategic courtesies he hasn’t extended to Merkel and May, for example. Trump’s long string of indulgences for Putin includes being an apologist for the Kremlin’s efforts to sabotage the 2016 presidential election in the U.S.
“He said he didn’t meddle. He said he didn’t meddle,” Trump told reporters last fall when asked about a meeting he had just had with Putin in which they discussed the 2016 election. “Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’” Trump said. “And I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it.”
Intelligence agencies and law enforcement officials had already stated publicly well before that meeting that the Kremlin tried to splinter American democracy in 2016. But Trump has never really accepted any of that — for the obvious reason that the federal investigation of Russia’s role in 2016 also includes an examination of Team Trump’s possible collusion with Team Putin.
“There was no collusion. Everybody knows there was no collusion,” Trump said in November. “I think it’s a shame that something like that could destroy a very important potential relationship between two countries that are really important countries.”
But it just got much harder for Trump to continue playing this game.
On Friday afternoon, the Justice Department’s special counsel, Robert Mueller, unveiled a richly detailed, 29-page indictment charging 12 Russian military officers and intelligence operatives with using money laundering and identity theft to orchestrate a series of digital assaults and break-ins targeting the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in the months before Election Day in 2016.
That roster of hacks and deceptions includes phishing attacks; using cryptocurrencies and false identities to buy servers and web domains; trying to break into state election boards; hacking a company that sold software used to verify voter registrations; coordinated attacks aimed at more than 300 members of the Clinton campaign and other Democratic Party entities; an attempt to break into the computer servers at Clinton’s personal offices; and the theft of troves of email from the Democratic National Committee.
The last two examples on that list are of special note.
On the first: Russian military hackers launched their first broadside against computer servers in Clinton’s offices on July 27, 2016, the same day that Trump himself publicly encouraged Russian cybercriminals to take a run at Clinton’s hardware and forage around for email. Perhaps the hackers weren’t taking inspiration or marching orders from Trump that day. Perhaps they were. Mueller’s investigation will have to sort out that issue.
On the second: Russian spies breaking in to the DNC’s servers echoes the mother-of-all political burglaries, Watergate. On June 17, 1972, police arrested five Republican operatives after they broke into the DNC’s offices in the Watergate office complex in Washington attempting to fine-tune wiretaps they had installed. The arrests triggered a series of law enforcement and congressional investigations that ultimately led to former president Richard Nixon’s resignation a little more than two years later. Nixon stepped down after tape recordings emerged proving he had tried to cover up the break-in and used other government officials to try to undermine the investigation.
We still don’t know the full story behind Russia’s election hacking, but there’s no question that a digital break-in at the DNC that began on March 15, 2016, isn’t any less illegal or unpalatable — or less seismic in its implications — than an old-fashioned, brick-and-mortar break-in at the DNC in 1972. And there’s a more than good chance that the person ultimately approving the Russian hackers’ assault in 2016 is the same person who Trump is meeting today in Helsinki.
Trump and Putin reportedly plan to meet privately at the start of their Helsinki summit, so it may be hard to audit exactly what they will discuss.
Will they chat about how preternaturally informed Trump campaign aides and confidants like Roger Stone seemed to be well before Election Day in 2016 about Wikileaks disseminating stolen Clinton campaign emails? Probably not — though the New York Times reported on Friday that an American described in the Mueller indictment as someone Russian hackers were communicating with and “a person who was in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign,” was Stone.
Will they chat about whether or not Putin will let the Justice Department extradite the 12 Russian military officers whom Mueller charged with crimes on Friday? “Well, I might,” Trump told CBS’s Glor. “I hadn’t thought of that. But I certainly, I’ll be asking about it.” I’ll wager that Trump doesn’t bring this up with Putin, because it only means onshoring witnesses who might give U.S authorities more ammunition for their Trump investigations, but let’s wait and see.
Will Trump stay off of the subject of Friday’s indictments entirely and do something unexpected like offering to lift economic sanctions imposed on Russia as punishment after it annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea? Or will Trump simply promise to look the other way as Russia continues tightening its hold on Crimea? Perhaps, but a shrewd investigator might say that doing either one of those things looks suspiciously like a quid pro quo undertaken to reward someone for having helped hack an election on your behalf.
“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” Trump wrote on Twitter early Monday, again pointing blame at the U.S. rather than at Russia’s own actions.
Whatever conversation Trump has with Putin today is going to be tainted regardless of talking points, alas, because Trump has established himself so firmly as a Putin fanboy. And Trump’s motives in forging a relationship with Putin are likely to remain suspect because of the president’s cavalier and ill-informed approach to relationships with European democracies — and because of the troubling history emerging in filings like last Friday’s indictments.
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”
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