Trump and Putin: Can the U.S. Forgive and Forget?

GETTY IMAGES/STEFFEN KUGLER

After weeks of anticipation, U.S. President Donald Trump finally met face-to-face with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany. The relationship between the two leaders has been characterized by lofty praise and suggestions of cooperation on the fight against ISIS. The relationship between their two nations, however, has seen harsh sanctions enacted against Moscow and sharp rebukes by members of the U.S. Congress for Russian meddling in the 2016 election, as well as high military and diplomatic tensions in Syria.

According to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s readout of the meeting, President Trump immediately brought up the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Although Trump reportedly pressed Putin on the issue, Putin denied interfering and asked for evidence.

This is not unusual, according to Cipher Brief Expert John McLaughlin, the former Acting Director of the CIA. “I have been in the position many times of transmitting unassailable U.S. conclusions to Russian officials only to have them deny it and ask for specific evidence, by which they mean sources and methods for the intelligence, which we can never give them.”

In a subsequent press conference, Putin told reporters “I answered as many [questions] as I could answer. I think [Trump] took it into consideration and agreed with it. But you should ask him what his opinion is on that.”

Speaking with reporters after the meeting, Tillerson said the two countries should “move forward” from the “intractable” disagreement on the issue, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that Trump “accepts these statements” that Russia did not interfere.

Just a day earlier, during a speech in Poland, President Trump again cast doubt about Russian hacking: “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.”

In January of 2017, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released an unclassified report with a unified conclusion by the CIA, FBI, and NSA on Russian interference, stating “we assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered 
an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.” The agencies applied “high confidence” to their judgments.

But President Trump said on Thursday that “nobody really knows for sure.” And, despite the intelligence community’s findings – and Trump’s chosen Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats’, confirmation of Russia’s involvement, Trump continued, “I remember when I was sitting back listening about Iraq — weapons of mass destruction — how everybody was 100 percent sure that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Guess what? That led to one big mess. They were wrong.”

However, in an interview Sunday with CNN’s Dana Bash, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley seemed confident that Russia did, in fact, execute the cyber attacks on the Democratic National Committee and the campaign of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. When asked about Putin’s denials, Haley replied, “this is Russia trying to save face, and they can’t, they can’t.”

“Everybody knows that Russia meddled in our elections,” she continued.

But now that Trump has reportedly confronted Putin on the issue, what comes next? Speaking on “Meet the Press” Sunday morning, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said “to forgive and forget when it comes to Putin regarding cyber-attacks is to empower Putin.” Graham emphasized that Congress would not stand idly by. “Even if [Trump] brought it up, he’s not willing to do anything about it. So, it makes me more committed than ever to get sanctions on President Trump’s desk punishing Putin.” 

General Michael Hayden, Cipher Brief Expert and former Director of the CIA and NSA isn’t so sure. Speaking to the Cipher Brief shortly after the meeting, he said, “President Trump is done complaining to the Russians about their electoral interference, and he certainly isn’t about to punish them any further for it.” 

So, was anything accomplished in the meeting, despite the fanfare and media attention? The discussion took far longer than the planned half hour, lasting two hours and 15 minutes.

According to Cipher Brief Expert John Sipher, a former member of the CIA Senior Intelligence Service, “I suspect that the longer the meeting, the more it [benefited] Putin and the Russian side. He has a lot more to gain from the U.S. than vice versa.”

Putin “knows exactly what he wants,” in Sipher’s view. “The U.S. side has never made it clear what it wants from the meeting, and therefore was in a weaker position.” 

Michael Sulick, former head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service and Cipher Brief Expert, agreed. “Putin needs to cultivate Trump. He’s consistently portrayed as the great “mastermind.” At this point, he has masterminded bogging Russia down in two costly quagmires, Syria and the Ukraine, achieving an economic growth rate below that of Brezhnev’s “era of stagnation,” sparking anti-corruption protests in 145 Russian cities and spearheading a cyber operation that has ruined any chance of sanctions relief in the near term.”

The bottom line for Sulick? Putin “truly needs a friend.”

Trump and Putin also discussed Syria at length, agreeing to a limited ceasefire beginning on Sunday, along with Ukraine, North Korea and the establishment of a working group on cybercrime and non-interference in elections.

But in Sipher’s mind, such an agreement to prevent meddling or interference misses the point. “I get so frustrated with the use of the word “meddling.” A more accurate word is ‘attack’” he says.

And building a framework for combatting cybercrime with the Russians?

“It is analogous to establishing a working group on home break-ins with someone who just robbed your home.”

Pam Benson and Kaitlin Lavinder also contributed to this report.