US President Donald Trump did what he had to do: he confronted Russian President Vladimir Putin about the issue of Russian interference in last year’s US elections during their much-anticipated first meeting.
Under intense pressure to do so from his Democratic opponents and even some fellow Republicans, Trump would have been pilloried even before he got home from his European trip had he not broached the subject.
The president can now point to the Putin meeting when challenged on whether he’s been tough enough on the Russians. But it’s still to be seen how forcefully Trump will deal with the issue going forward to prevent future meddling and to ensure consequences for what’s already occurred.
“If anything, we’ve seen Russia continue to pursue similar tactics in the French election. If anything, it feels to be intensifying, and if we now say we’re done with this, we are not adequately protecting our country,” said Heather Conley, a Europe expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
Without knowing exactly what Trump said to Putin on the issue during in their two-hour-plus meeting, it is hard to know whether Trump’s approach toward to the matter has shifted significantly.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who sat in on the meeting and briefed journalists afterward, said Trump opened the session by “raising the concerns of the American people regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election”.
Trump pressed Putin on the matter more than once, Tillerson said. Putin, in turn, denied involvement and asked for proof.
If anything, we’ve seen Russia continue to pursue similar tactics in the French election. If anything, it feels to be intensifying
Heather Conley, Europe expert
“The fact that the issue came up should not be a surprise,” said Derek Chollet, a former Obama administration official and senior adviser for security and defence policy at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, adding that it “would have been a shock had the issue not come up”.
What matters, Chollet said, are the specifics of what the two presidents discussed about election meddling, the points Trump agreed or disagreed with, and how much Putin dominated the conversation.
Tillerson said the leaders agreed to work together on staying out of each other’s elections processes. But Trump has sent mixed signals about how seriously he regards the matter.
Deeply frustrated by the suggestion that his 2016 victory may have been tainted, Trump has held back from fully endorsing the findings of multiple US intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in last year’s presidential election to help him win.
Just on Thursday, the day before he and Putin met, Trump levelled his latest critique of America’s intelligence apparatus while standing on Polish soil, waffling on whether Russia was involved and saying that Moscow was probably behind the meddling but that other countries may be guilty, too.
“Nobody really knows,” he said.
Trump has tried to shift the focus away from what steps he will take to safeguard US elections to what then-president Barack Obama did after he was briefed before the election about what Russia was up to. Trump has alleged that Obama didn’t do anything to stop Russia because he expected Democrat Hillary Clinton to win anyway.
Obama, for his part, has said that he confronted Putin about the issue when they were at an international conference last year and told the Russian to knock it off.
It would also have had more force if he had not again criticised the integrity of our intelligence agencies
U.S. Senator Mark Warner
Tillerson said Trump and Putin are “rightly” focused on moving relations between their countries forward from what he called an “intractable disagreement”.
But US Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat and vice-chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said that whatever Trump told Putin would have carried more weight if the president hadn’t “equivocated” about who was behind the election interference.
“It would also have had more force if he had not again criticised the integrity of our intelligence agencies, among whom there is unwavering agreement about Russia’s active interference in the 2016 US presidential election,” Warner said.
Thomas Wright, a senior fellow and director of the US-Europe centre at the Brookings Institution, said the Trump administration hasn’t shown itself to be sincere about wanting to prevent future attacks and has shown a determination to build a partnership with Russia, despite the worries of some European allies who fear Moscow’s aggressive tactics.
“They’re basically checking the box on certain things they feel like they’ll get in trouble if they don’t do,” Wright said.
Trump will get some credit for raising the elections issue with Putin. But he still has plenty of convincing to do regarding his resolve in standing up to the Russians.
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