Trump’s suggestion of working with Russia on cybersecurity is widely ridiculed

Laura King
Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s apparent endorsement of a proposed partnership with Russia on cybersecurity drew withering reviews Sunday from lawmakers, including several from his own party, while the president’s aides struggled to answer questions about how hard Trump pressed Russian President Vladimir Putin on Moscow’s meddling in last year’s U.S. presidential election.

Trump’s encounter with Putin on the sidelines of the Group of 20 economic summit in Hamburg, Germany, Friday was his first meeting as president with the Russian leader. It came after months of controversy over Russian meddling and whether anyone close to Trump’s campaign had colluded in it.

The White House has sought to portray Trump’s trip to Germany and a stopover beforehand in Poland as a solid success, despite a striking degree of U.S. isolation over climate change and trade at the G-20 gathering.

Trump returned Saturday to what promises to be a bruising new round of battles over the faltering Senate health care plan and fresh GOP anxiety over whether the party, which controls both houses of Congress, can notch meaningful legislative achievements by summer’s end.

Tweets: As often happens, Trump made the job of White House aides more difficult, this time with a series of Twitter posts Sunday morning in which he again seemed to equivocate on whether there had been Russian hacking. He also revived attacks on former President Barack Obama and John Podesta, who ran Hillary Clinton’s losing presidential campaign.

Almost as soon as the Trump-Putin talks ended Friday, the Russians embarked on a public-relations offensive. With the U.S. side staying out of camera range, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Trump had accepted Putin’s denial of interference in the election.

Putin said later that Trump had seemed “satisfied” with his protestations of innocence.

The Trump administration presented its own nuanced version, via Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. He said the president had repeatedly raised the issue of meddling with Putin and the two sides had agreed it was time to move on to other and more pressing issues.

Trump said on Twitter Sunday that he had “strongly pressed” Putin over election interference and that the Russian leader “vehemently denied it.”

White House officials said Sunday that Trump did not believe Putin’s denials, though neither he nor aides have described him pushing back against them at the time.

“The president absolutely did not believe the denial of President Putin,” Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Trump avoided that point, saying only, “I’ve already given my opinion.”

As recently as Thursday, Trump expressed doubts about whether Russia had interfered in the election, remarking in a news conference in Warsaw that “I think it could very well have been Russia, but I think it could well have been other countries.”

“Nobody really knows for sure,” he said.

‘Cyber Security unit’: Rather than repeat those doubts, Trump’s Twitter posts touted his talk with Putin about creating an “impenetrable Cyber Security unit” to combat abuses like hacking and online propaganda.

That prospect that left some leading Republicans scarcely able to contain their disbelief.

“It’s not the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard, but it’s pretty close,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. He called Trump’s talks with Putin “disastrous.”

“When it comes to Russia, he’s got a blind spot,” Graham said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

In addition to the U.S. intelligence assessment that the Russian leader authorized the campaign to interfere in the American election to help Trump, Moscow stands accused of meddling in several European election campaigns.

Senators: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a prominent Russia hawk, was asked on CBS’s “Face the Nation” whether Russia was really likely to provide any help in combating election interference.

“I am sure that Vladimir Putin could be of enormous assistance to that effort, since he’s doing the hacking.”

Turning serious, he added: “Yes, it’s time to move forward, but there has to be a price to pay” for an attack on American democracy.

Another Republican senator, Marco Rubio of Florida — who, like Graham, had been an early candidate for the Republican presidential nomination —said on Twitter that teaming up with Putin to safeguard elections would be like partnering with Syria’s President Bashar Assad, who has carried out repeated strikes against his own people with chemical weapons.

Trump surrogates, though, defended the plan as a worthy effort to bring Russia into the fold.

“This is about having the capabilities to make sure that we both fight cyber (interference) together, which I think is a very significant accomplishment for President Trump,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Democrats: Unsurprisingly, Democratic lawmakers and former Obama administration officials found little to praise about the proposal.

“We might as well just mail our ballot boxes to Moscow,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Schiff, a former prosecutor, is the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

On the same program, former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter called it a page from the old Soviet-era playbook.

“When confronted with something wrong, they ask for U.S. intelligence — old trick — and propose a working group, in this case on cyber,” he said. “But this is like the guy who robbed your house proposing a working group on burglary.”

Clarity: The series of tweets marked Trump’s first substantive public assessment of the meeting with Putin. In them, he did not contest the Russian assertion that he had accepted Putin’s denials.

Priebus, in the Fox interview, provided little more clarity. “He said they (Russians) probably meddled in the election,” he said. “But he also believes that other countries also participated in this activity.”

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has said previously that there was no evidence that the campaign of interference was directed by anyone other than the Russians.

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was asked on CNN’s “State of the Union” why Trump would not state, publicly and explicitly, that Russia had meddled in the U.S. election.

“Everybody’s trying to nitpick what he says and what he doesn’t, but talk is one thing — actions are another,” she said. “He confronted President Putin; he made it the first thing that he talked about. And I think we have to now see where it goes from here.”

Haley also suggested that Trump might be playing a canny long game in trying to cultivate a relationship with Putin — although she employed far tougher language about Russia than has been heard from the president.

“We can’t trust Russia, and we won’t ever trust Russia,” she said. “But you keep those that you don’t trust closer, so that you can always keep an eye on them and keep them in check.”