GLASGOW, Scotland (Reuters) - If U.S. President Donald Trump was inclined to be tentative when raising election meddling with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers with hacking in 2016 has made that approach a much harder sell.
A federal grand jury on Friday alleged that officers of Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, secretly monitored computers and stole data from the campaign of Trump’s former rival, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
The charges put an even greater spotlight on Trump’s treatment of Putin, who has denied making efforts to intervene in the U.S. election that Trump, a Republican, unexpectedly won.
Trump has called the investigation into whether his campaign colluded with Moscow a “witch hunt” and has shown an eagerness to get along with his Russian counterpart, repeatedly referring to the former KGB leader’s denials of such behaviour.
“Trump has maybe a little less room to manoeuvre if he wants to downplay the issue or pretend that it’s not real,” said Jeffrey Mankoff, a Russia expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Trump has said he plans to raise the issue. When asked at a news conference in Britain on Friday whether he would tell Putin to stay out of U.S. elections, Trump said “yes”.
But the president indicated he did not expect much progress on the issue. “I will absolutely bring that up,” Trump told reporters. “I don’t think you’ll have any ‘Gee, I did it. I did it. You got me.’”
Critics said they were sceptical Trump would press the issue at all, despite the indictments.
“Even with today’s news, we can expect Trump to raise Putin’s attack on our democracy in a passing, perfunctory way before again taking - or at least claiming to take - Putin’s denials at face value,” said Ned Price, a former national security council spokesman for President Barack Obama.
Democratic lawmakers urged Trump to cancel the get-together with Putin. The president is spending the weekend at his golf property in Scotland before leaving on Sunday for Helsinki, where the meeting is scheduled to take place.
Garrett Marquis, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said the release of the charges “has no impact on Monday’s meeting.”
But the summit, and the extent of Trump’s emphasis on election meddling, could highlight a divide between him and his own advisers, not to mention other Republicans, about the seriousness of Russia’s activities.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser John Bolton, at least prior to joining the White House, have both been more critical of Moscow than the president they serve. And the administration’s broader policy towards Russia is harsher than the rhetoric employed by Trump, who recently suggested that Moscow be readmitted to what is now the Group of Seven, since Russia was kicked out of the bloc of industrialized countries for annexing Crimea from Ukraine.
“The administration has a pretty good policy towards Russia, just the president doesn’t agree with it,” said Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia under Obama. “I can’t remember a foreign policy debate that had this kind of disconnect between the president and literally every other person in his administration.”
Trump weighed in on the indictments on Saturday.
“The stories you heard about the 12 Russians yesterday took place during the Obama Administration, not the Trump Administration,” he tweeted. “Why didn’t they do something about it, especially when it was reported that President Obama was informed by the FBI in September, before the Election?”
Trump often blames Obama for problems affecting his presidency. He has repeatedly declined to hold Putin accountable for annexing Crimea, pointing to Obama instead for allowing it to happen under his watch.
Putin could play on those tendencies during their meeting and reject the charges against his agents as well.
Trump’s belief in a “Deep State” network of government and intelligence officials who are acting to damage him is another area Putin could exploit, using the timing of Friday’s announcement to play on Trump’s mistrust of the investigation into the 2016 election, CSIS’s Mankoff said.
U.S. partners will be watching to see whether Trump presses the meddling issue aggressively.
“Words will matter, especially if he goes soft on Putin after these indictments. That would rattle the allies,” said one U.S. diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But the worst-case scenario, at least from our point of view, is that after the summit, he orders us to take actions that could undermine our allies’ confidence in NATO and in whether we still have their backs with Russia.”
Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, James Oliphant and John Walcott in Washington; Editing by Leslie Adler and Kevin Liffey