President Trump’s touting 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 were left struggling to answer questions about just how hard Trump pressed Russian President Vladimir Putin on Moscow’s meddling in last year’s U.S. presidential election.
Late Sunday, Trump appeared to back away from the cyber-partnership idea.
Trump’s encounter with Putin on the sidelines of the Group of 20 economic summit in Hamburg, Germany, on 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 healthcare plan and fresh GOP anxiety over whether the party, which controls both houses of Congress, can notch meaningful legislative achievements by summer’s end.
As often happens, Trump made the job of White House underlings more difficult — this time, with a series of tweets Sunday morning in which he again seemed to equivocate on whether Russian hacking had taken place. He also revived attack lines against former President Obama and John Podesta, who ran Hillary Clinton’s losing presidential campaign.
Almost as soon as the Trump-Putin talks ended Friday after more than two hours of discussions, the Russians embarked on a public relations offensive. With the U.S. side staying out of camera range, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov happily informed reporters that Trump had accepted Putin’s denial of interference in the campaign.
Putin reinforced that narrative Saturday, saying that Trump had seemed “satisfied” with his protestations of innocence.
The Trump administration presented its own nuanced version, via Secretary of State Rex Tillerson: that the president had repeatedly raised the issue of online meddling with Putin and the two sides had agreed it was time to move on to other and more pressing issues, including the continuing bloodbath in Syria.
Trump himself weighed in with a series of tweets Sunday saying 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 in his tweets 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.
Rather than repeat those doubts, Trump’s tweets 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 of South Carolina, who called Trump’s talks with Putin “disastrous.” Interviewed on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” the GOP veteran added, “When it comes to Russia, he’s got a blind spot.”
In addition to the U.S. intelligence assessment that the Russian leader personally authorized the campaign to interfere in the American vote with the aim of aiding Trump, Moscow stands accused of meddling in several European election campaigns.
Sen. John McCain, a prominent Russia hawk, was asked on CBS’ “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” — the Arizona Republican paused to chortle — “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.
Yet another Republican senator, Marco Rubio of Florida — who, like Graham, had been an early hopeful for the GOP presidential nomination — chimed in with more fox-guarding-the-henhouse imagery. He 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 banned nerve agents, in a chemical weapons unit.
Late Sunday, Trump poured cold water on the idea.
“The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn't mean I think it can happen. It can't,” he said on Twitter.
Earlier in the day, Trump surrogates 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 Steven T. Mnuchin said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Not surprisingly, 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 B. Schiff (D-Burbank) 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.”
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 News interview, provided little more in the way of clarity. “He said they [Russians] probably meddled in the election,” the chief of staff told interviewer Chris Wallace. “But he also believes that other countries also participated in this activity.”
Former Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper has said previously that there was no evidence that the campaign of interference was directed by anyone other than the Kremlin.
As the collusion investigation reaches deeper into Trump’s inner circle, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley 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.”
Tillerson, who was visiting Ukraine on Sunday, also took a tougher line toward Moscow, saying it was the Kremlin’s responsibility to “de-escalate” the situation in the country’s eastern sector by removing its armaments and exercising control over separatists loyal to Russia.
Until then, he said at a news conference with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, sanctions would remain in place.
Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this report.
7:25 p.m.: This article was updated with a new tweet from President Trump.
The article was originally published at noon.