WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats pressed President Trump to discuss Russia’s election interference with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday as Trump, speaking in Poland today, said there “could have been a lot of people” from different countries who meddled in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Trump and Putin are scheduled to meet at on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, at 3:45 p.m. local time, or 9:45 EST Friday morning. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and translators are expected to be in the room for the half-hour meeting. Putin is famous for making world leaders wait, from showing up 40 minutes late to a meeting with President Obama in 2012 to leaving German Chancellor Angela Merkel waiting more than four hours in 2014; he was even 50 minutes late to meet Pope Francis.
A senior State Department official told reporters on background Wednesday: “I certainly can’t speculate about what the president might discuss with Putin.”
National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster told reporters last week at the White House that “there’s no specific agenda” for the meeting as “it’s really going to be whatever the president wants to talk about.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Intelligence Committee Vice-Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.), Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-R.I.), and Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) referenced McMaster’s remarks in their letter to Trump stressing it’s “critical that you set the agenda from the start and make absolutely clear that Russian interference in our democracy will in no way be tolerated.”
“President Putin directed an attack on the most central tenet of our democracy – our election. Not raising this matter with President Putin would be a severe dereliction of the duty of the office to which you were elected,” the senators wrote. “The United States has elections this coming fall and additional elections in 2018. No candidate, Democrat, Republican or independent, wants to have President Putin and his cronies manipulating his or her electorate. And, it’s critical that both the Executive and Legislative branches of our government use every tool at our disposal to ensure that Putin does not believe he has a free hand to implement his manipulative program of election interference ever again.”
“The upcoming elections cannot be a playground for President Putin.”
They referenced legislation to maintain and increase punitive sanctions on Moscow — while requiring rollback approval from Congress should Trump want to relax sanctions against Russia — that unanimously passed by the Senate last month but has yet to be taken up by the House, “which we believe will pass the full Congress in short order.”
“We believe it is crucial for you – as the President of the United States – to raise this matter with President Putin and to ensure that he hears you loud and clear – interfering in our elections was wrong in 2016 and it will not be permitted to happen again,” the Dem leaders added. “We urge you to raise this matter …President Putin must understand this can never happen again.”
At a press conference with President Andrzej Duda in Warsaw today, Trump was asked if he would “once and for all, yes or no, definitively say that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.”
“Well, I think it was Russia. And I think it could have been other people in other countries. Could have been a lot of people interfered,” Trump replied.
“I said it very simply. I think it could very well have been Russia, but I think it could well have been other countries. And I won’t be specific, but I think a lot of people interfere,” he added. “I think it’s been happening for a long time. It’s been happening for many, many years.”
The president shifted to Obama’s treading carefully around the intelligence reports of a Russian influence operation during the campaign cycle. “He did nothing about it. The reason is he thought Hillary was going to win. And if he thought I was going to win, he would have done plenty about it,” Trump said.
Pressed further on the intelligence reporting, Trump “nobody really knows; nobody really knows for sure.”
The intelligence community assessment called the campaign operation “the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, but these activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations.”
Trump said today that intelligence was wrong on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and “that led to one big mess.”
State Department press secretary Heather Nauert was asked at today’s briefing if the administration could definitively assure “Washington is not going to cut a deal with Moscow over Ukraine” and sell out our allies in Kiev.
“We have a good relationship with that nation. The secretary, as you know, will be headed to Ukraine in a few days. And that is something that we view as an important relationship. We continue to be concerned about the situation in Crimea and in the eastern part of Ukraine. And we continue to work toward pushing parties to follow through on the Minsk agreement,” Nauert replied.
“But I cannot anticipate that there will be any changes. That is an important country to us. And I think that that hasn’t changed.”