The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump knew 12 Russians were being indicted. He still talked about a ‘witch hunt’ and being Putin’s friend.

Ahead of a July 16 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Trump slammed the probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 election as a "witch hunt." (Video: The Washington Post)

While summarizing the indictments of 12 Russian intelligence officials Friday, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein made one particularly notable disclosure: He had previewed the announcement with President Trump.

“I briefed President Trump about these allegations earlier this week,” Rosenstein said. “The president is fully aware of the department's actions today.”

That may seem like a perfunctory bit of news about the internal workings of a bureaucracy. Until you consider this: Trump has spent much of this week knowing that 12 Russians were about to be indicted, and yet he still talked about forging a positive relationship with Russia. He even still called Robert S. Mueller III's investigation, which has brought the number of Russians charged to 26, a “witch hunt” as recently as earlier Friday.

“I think that we're being hurt very badly by the — I would call it the witch hunt,” Trump said Friday in a news conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May. Trump then referred to FBI agent Peter Strzok's hearing Thursday: “I would call it the rigged witch hunt, after watching some of the little clips. … I think that really hurts our country, and it really hurts our relationship with Russia."

Trump added: “I think I'd have a very good relationship with President Putin if we spend time together.” And at another point, he again played down the idea that pressing Putin about Russia's 2016 election interference was a good use of anyone's time.

“I know you'll ask, 'Will we be talking about meddling?' And I will absolutely bring that up,” he said, adding: “There won't be a Perry Mason here, I don't think, but you never know what happens, right? But I will absolutely, firmly ask the question.”

A day earlier, Trump held another news conference, this time at the end of a NATO summit in Brussels. As Philip Bump noted, he seemed to go out of his way to talk about his personal relationship with Putin, rather than the diplomatic strains between the two countries. In addition to the electoral hacking, the U.S. government joined its Western allies a few months ago in blaming Russia for the poisoning of a former Russian agent on British soil.

But Trump on Thursday, as he has before, expressed little desire to rock the boat or play hardball with Putin.

On July 12, President Trump said he would ask Russian President Vladimir Putin "again" whether Russia had meddled in the 2016 presidential elections. (Video: The Washington Post)

“Somebody was saying, is he an enemy? He’s not my enemy. Is he a friend? No, I don’t know him well enough,” Trump said. “But the couple of times I’ve gotten to meet him, we get along very well.

“I hope we get along well. I think we get along well. But ultimately, he’s a competitor. He’s representing Russia. I’m representing the United States. So, in a sense, we’re competitors. Not a question of friend or enemy. He’s not my enemy. And, hopefully, someday, maybe he’ll be a friend. But I just don’t know him very well.”

Trump even seemed to leave open the possibility of giving Putin some kind of concession when it comes to the recognition of Crimea, which was seized from Ukraine earlier this decade, as Russian territory. Administration officials including John Bolton have hinted at the possibility, even though the U.S. government regards the action as illegal.

“What will happen with Crimea from this point on? That I can't tell you,” Trump said. “But I'm not happy about Crimea. But again, that was on Barack Obama's watch, not Trump's watch.”

All of this was pretty boilerplate from Trump, but it has been pretty shocking even at times when Russians weren't being indicted. Trump's comments about allies have often been tougher than his comments about Russia. His administration has taken a series of tough actions with regard to Russia, yes, but rarely with Trump's full-throated support. And indeed, Trump even resisted signing sanctions against Russia that Congress overwhelmingly passed last year.

But now we know Trump said all of these things over the last two days knowing his Justice Department had nailed down a plot to hack the Democrats during the 2016 election. He called it a “witch hunt” even knowing yet more witches would soon be named. He talked about making nice with Putin even as Putin's plot to meddle in 2016 was about to be laid bare.

That takes some chutzpah.