Home News Russian Agents' Indictment Raises Stakes Ahead of Trump-Putin Summit

Russian Agents' Indictment Raises Stakes Ahead of Trump-Putin Summit

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President Donald Trump, who is expected to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, spoke at a press conference during meetings with NATO officials in Brussels this week.


Jaap Arriens/Zuma Press

The federal indictment on Friday of 12 Russian intelligence agents accused of hacking Democratic and state election computers in 2016 moves the topic of Russian meddling in the presidential election higher on the agenda for the two nations ahead of President

Donald Trump’s

summit meeting with Russian President

Vladimir Putin

in Helsinki.

President Trump said he would address the issue, though it’s unclear how much he will prioritize it compared with other matters, such as seeking Mr. Putin’s help in Syria and other hot spots.

Last week, before Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment was released, the president dismissed the Russia probe as a “rigged witch hunt.” He later said he anticipated the encounter with Russian President Vladimir Putin would be the easiest of a series of overseas meetings this past week with European allies and NATO officials.

At a news conference Thursday, he told reporters that when he meets with Mr. Putin he would “ask your favorite question about meddling,” going on to say that “he may deny it.”

“It’s one of those things,” he continued. “All I can say is, ‘Did you? and ‘Don’t do it again.’ All I can do is say it.”

But the indictment could give Mr. Trump fodder to challenge Mr. Putin’s denials of Russian attempts to influence the election.

A dozen Russian intelligence officials are named in the legal document and charged with hacking into the Democratic National Committee and Democratic presidential nominee

Hillary Clinton’s

campaign beginning in March 2016. The Russian agents obtained login credentials and used them to secretly monitor the activity of “dozens” of Democratic campaign and party officials, the indictment said.

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The stolen emails were then released strategically during the campaign to inflict maximum damage on Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy, the indictment said, thus improving Mr. Trump’s chances of winning. The indictment quotes a message just before the Democratic convention aimed at uniting Clinton and rival Bernie Sanders supporters in which one unnamed organization that received stolen documents told Russian operatives: “we think trump has only a 25% chance of winning against hillary…so conflict between bernie and hillary is interesting.”

The White House said Friday that “today’s charges include no allegations of knowing involvement by anyone on the campaign and no allegations that the alleged hacking affected the election result. This is consistent with what we have been saying all along.”

But lawmakers and analysts said those revelations should prompt Mr. Trump to forcefully raise the issue and press Mr. Putin for answers that go beyond simple denials.

Angela Stent, a Georgetown University professor and author of the forthcoming book, “Putin’s World,” said in an interview: “The fact that this was published today raises the stakes for him [Mr. Trump] in making sure he raises the issue with Putin. When he comes out of the meeting, he has to say something about it.”

After the indictments were announced, Democrats called on the president to cancel the summit while one Republican,

Sen. John McCain

of Arizona, said Mr. Trump should scrap the meeting unless he is “prepared to hold Putin accountable.”

“President Trump must be willing to confront Putin from a position of strength and demonstrate that there will be a serious price to pay for his ongoing aggression towards the United States and democracies around the world,” Mr. McCain said.

The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request to comment on whether the indictment might affect preparations for the meeting with Mr. Putin.

Russia’s foreign ministry denied the accusations and said the timing aims to undermine Mr. Trump’s effort to improve relations with Russia.

“Influential political forces in Washington, who are against the normalization of relations between our two countries, are trying to squeeze the maximum of an empty bubble, which will soon be forgotten,” the foreign ministry said shortly after the indictments.

A longstanding goal of Mr. Trump has been warmer relations with Russia. He has said that he wants to be on better terms with Mr. Putin, predicting that stronger personal ties will prove helpful in enlisting Russian support in Syria and other international flash points.

Following Mr. Putin’s election victory in March, Mr. Trump spoke to him by phone and congratulated him, ignoring the advice of national security advisers, White House officials familiar with the call have said.

On the same call, Mr. Trump touted the U.S. economy’s growth since he took office. Mr. Putin sought to charm the president on the call, occasionally breaking in to note that it was because of Mr. Trump’s strong leadership that the economy is doing well, a Trump administration official said.

During the conversation, Mr. Trump didn’t mention election meddling, the official said. That same sort of conciliatory approach toward Mr. Putin would backfire in light of the indictments, making Mr. Trump look cowed, some analysts said.

Michael McFaul, who was U.S. ambassador to Russia in the Obama administration, said: “President Trump now has to press President Putin on his government’s violation of American sovereignty in the 2016 presidential elections.”

Mentioning the Russian military intelligence officers who were indicted on Friday, he added: “These GRU officers work for Putin. They have just been indicted by the U.S. government. If Trump avoids the subject, Putin will read that as a sign of weakness.”

Mr. Trump has said that he wants to discuss the conflict in Syria, where the U.S. wants Moscow’s help in scaling back Iran’s military presence. He also said he was “not happy” about Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula, but largely put the blame on former President

Barack Obama

for allowing “it to happen.”

Before the indictment, he had made plain that the issue of Russian interference in the election wouldn’t dominate summit discussions.

“Trump wants big splashy deliverables, but it makes a deal with Putin harder and will complicate Trumps ability to sell any splashy deliverable from the meeting,” said Paul Stronski, a former Obama White House official.

On that point, Russia seemed to concur. In its statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry said: “The obvious purpose of this information is to spoil the atmosphere of the Russian-American summit before it begins.”

Write to Peter Nicholas at peter.nicholas@wsj.com

Appeared in the July 14, 2018, print edition as ‘Indictment Raises Stakes for Trump-Putin Summit.’

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