They are three little words that Donald Trump all but refuses to say: Russia did it.
A day before his crucial meeting with Vladimir Putin, Trump continued to duck the question of whether Moscow meddled in the 2016 campaign, sowing concern among Democrats and some Republicans that he’ll look equivocal as he sits down with the Russian president for the first time on Friday. Trump also renewed friction with American intelligence agencies that have publicly declared that Russia tried to interfere in the election he won.
The president and the intelligence community “need to get on the same page for the protection of the American people,” Representative Scott Taylor, a Virginia Republican and former Navy SEAL, said in an interview with CNN. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who recently retired from the House, said on Fox News that he hoped Trump makes Russian interference“an issue” with Putin.
During a news conference in Warsaw, Trump was asked point-blank to say once and for all, yes or no, whether Russia hacked the U.S. election. The meddling “could be Russia,” he said, but “a lot of people interfere” and other countries may have been involved. Plus, Trump argued, the intelligence services routinely get things wrong — once again citing the erroneous finding that Iraq had developed weapons of mass destruction, now more than a decade old.
“Nobody really knows,” Trump said. “Nobody really knows for sure.”
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a report on January 6, based on an assessment by the CIA, FBI and NSA, that said the U.S. had “high confidence” Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered “an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election.” The Kremlin “aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting” his opponent, Hillary Clinton, the report said.
Trump’s hand-picked intelligence officials — including CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats — have backed that assessment.
But by openly questioning the conclusions of the intelligence community, Trump leaves himself at a disadvantage in dealing with a former KGB official who has served as Russia’s president or prime minister since 1999. As long as Trump undermines his own spy agencies, Putin can challenge complaints about election interference by citing the American president’s own unsubstantiated claims that U.S. intelligence on the matter may be flawed.
Trump’s remarks prompted bipartisan calls for him to nonetheless press the issue with Putin. The president should make clear to Putin “and the world how unacceptable this actually is and that President Trump would do something” should Russia’s election interference continue, Chaffetz said.
“The Russians need to know how serious the president is about holding the line,” he added.
To be sure, Trump offered tough talk while in Warsaw, criticizing Russia’s “destabilizing behavior” and calling for an end to support for “hostile regimes” in Syria and Iran. And Trump has said explicitly that he sees value in improving a relationship with the Kremlin that soured under former President Barack Obama. Trump believes that he can work with Putin on common goals such as combating Islamic State terrorists.
Trump and Putin will be joined in their meeting only by their top diplomats, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and translators, a White House official said. Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia under Obama, said on Twitter that Putin “likes small meetings” and the format indicates the White House “is letting Kremlin dictate the terms of this meeting.”
Tillerson said in a statement on Wednesday that Trump plans to raise the prospect of partnering with Russia to resolve the Syrian civil war in the meeting. His statement is the most detailed description of the administration’s plans for the meeting, but it was silent on Russia’s election meddling.
“President Trump must have the courage to raise the issue of Russian interference in our elections directly with President Putin, otherwise the Kremlin will conclude he is too weak to stand up to them,” Representative Adam Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “That would be a historic mistake, with damaging implications for our foreign policy for years to come.”
Representative Lee Zeldin, a New York Republican, said Thursday on CNN that Trump “should bring up” Russian meddling in the meeting with Putin.
“I do believe Russia meddled with the election and it’s beyond a fair game to bring up at the meeting tomorrow,” he said.
Trump’s continued reluctance to acknowledge Russia’s meddling also telegraphs his own insecurity about the credibility of his election. Eight months after the vote, Trump routinely mentions his victory in speeches and meetings and he has repeatedly called coverage of Russian meddling “fake news.” It’s a point certain to have been noticed by the Russians, who are sizing up whether the president can be a credible bargaining partner on a wide range of issues.
“For someone who boasts about how hard he hits back, when it comes to Russia the President seems more like a punching bag,” said Eliot Engel, the New York Democrat who is ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Steve Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served as U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine during the Clinton Administration, said the situation reminded him of when the former president was reticent to raise difficult issues with Boris Yeltsin in their meetings, knowing the discussion was unlikely to produce results. But, Pifer said, it was important “to put a marker down with the Russians.”
“He really has to raise the Russian election hacking last year, and has to say something like, ‘Vladimir, don’t do this again. There will be consequences,’” Pifer said.
Trump also took the opportunity during his news conference to again blame his predecessor for not having done more to confront Russia — even though the president says that he doubts Putin’s involvement. By attacking Obama for inaction, Trump invites questions about how he’ll punish Russia himself — or prevent a repeat of its meddling in 2018. His administration has taken no public measures against Russia in response to its 2016 election activities and has made only modest action to shore up the nation’s voting system against future manipulation by adversaries.
The White House says election security will be examined by a commission led by Vice President Mike Pence that’s studying the nation’s voting systems. But Trump appointed the commission to investigate his own unsubstantiated claim that 3 million illegal voters cast ballots for Clinton, not to probe Russian meddling in the election.
And while the Russian meddling in the election — and any ties to Trump associates — are under investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, critics say the administration is undermining other efforts to deter future Russian interference, including bipartisan legislation moving through Congress that would slap the country with new sanctions.
“The administration has already signaled a willingness to reconsider our sanctions policy, and deliberate delays have left the Senate’s new sanctions bill in limbo,” Engel said.
A White House official, who insisted on anonymity to describe internal discussions, said the administration was concerned the bill would restrict Trump’s freedom to conduct foreign policy and limit his ability to bargain sanctions relief for concessions from the Kremlin.
The Trump administration has embraced the existing Russia sanctions imposed under Obama, both in relation for the incursion into Crimea and for the election interference, the official said. Obama ejected 35 Russian diplomats from the country and seized two U.S. compounds Russia used. He imposed financial penalties on people alleged to have participated in the hack of material from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign.
The White House official acknowledged that the Trump administration is considering returning the two compounds to the Russians, but said no decision had been made and that Trump would only do so as part of a broader deal.
For Trump, the best way to quiet complaints over his posture toward Russia would be for his engagement strategy to pay tangible dividends. Administration officials ahead of the trip indicated that while there was no set agenda for the Trump-Putin meeting, finding areas where the countries could cooperate would be high on the agenda.
“We’re at the very beginning,” Tillerson told reporters Wednesday night. “At this point it’s very difficult to say what Russia’s intentions are in this relationship. And I think that’s the most important part of this meeting, is to have a good exchange between President Trump and President Putin over what they both see as the nature of this relationship between our two countries.”