Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation just indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for interfering in the 2016 election. It seems to have changed nothing for President Trump.
About the most innocent explanation you can offer for Trump’s muted attitude toward Russia’s and Vladimir Putin’s 2016 actions is that he doesn’t like to talk about it — that he feels the whole thing undermines his legitimacy as president. And a new interview with CBS News shows better than just about anything how defensive he is about the whole thing.
CBS released four questions and answers Sunday from Trump’s interview with anchor Jeff Glor. The big news is that he suggested the European Union is a “foe” and that he says he doesn’t expect much from his meeting Monday with Putin.
But his first three responses were also deeply telling. When asked about Russia, Trump almost instantly goes on the defensive or into blame-shifting mode. Aides have said he doesn’t even like to talk about it behind closed doors and that this hampers the development of any real strategy to combat Russian interference, but rarely does Trump make it so clear.
Let’s break it down. Here's the first Q&A:
GLOR: I saw the conversation you had with [NATO Secretary General] Jens Stoltenberg, which is a very direct conversation, as you approach the meetings with Vladimir Putin coming up. Do you expect a similar tone?
TRUMP: I don’t expect anything. I frankly don’t expect — I go in with very low expectations. I think that getting along with Russia is a good thing. But it’s possible we won’t. I think we’re greatly hampered by this whole witch hunt that’s going on in the United States. The Russian witch hunt. The — the rigged situation. I watch some of the testimony, even though I’m in Europe, of Strzok.
Trump was not asked about the Russia investigation, but he immediately reverts to it — and to FBI agent Peter Strzok’s testimony on Thursday. Trump could talk about what could come of the meeting, but instead he focuses on who he thinks is trying to undermine it. He is asked about the meeting, and brings it right back to the investigation.
Here’s the second Q&A:
GLOR: The Russians who were indicted, would you ask Putin to send them here?
TRUMP: Well, I might. I hadn’t thought of that. But I certainly, I'll be asking about it. But again, this was during the Obama administration. They were doing whatever it was during the Obama administration.
This may be the most striking exchange of all. Trump brushes off the idea of asking for extradition as if it were a strange idea — which is a tell if there ever was one when it comes to how worried he is about Russian interference. But he would like to talk about how this didn’t happen on his watch. Trump seems much more concerned with making sure blame is correctly placed than he is with pressing Putin on holding those allegedly responsible accountable.
And here’s the third Q&A:
GLOR: Who is your biggest competitor? Your biggest foe globally right now?
TRUMP: Well I think we have a lot of foes. I think the European Union is a foe, what they do to us in trade. Now you wouldn’t think of the European Union but they’re a foe. Russia is foe in certain respects. China is a foe economically, certainly they are a foe. But that doesn’t mean they are bad. It doesn’t mean anything. It means that they are competitive.
The previous two questions were about Russia, and then Trump is asked about who his biggest global foe is right now. Russia is clearly on his mind, and yet he goes in a different direction. He can’t allow that Russia is a top foe; he has to place it in the context of other countries — even ones who have traditionally been allies or at least less antagonistic to the United States.
Mueller has now indicted 26 Russians for their actions during the 2016 campaign, and Trump has shown very little appetite for pressing Putin on that. He seems to regard it as a matter to be asked about for good measure and then dispatched in favor of more important and interesting things. And that, more than anything, tells you just how unconcerned he is with the whole thing.
Some might think he’d change his approach as Mueller and his own Justice Department offer details of a plot that Russia allegedly carried out — repudiating Trump’s conspiracy theories in the process. They might think that Mueller indicting Russians and not Trump’s own aides (at least not yet) would give the president a window to blame Russia while asserting his own innocence.
They would think wrong. If nothing else, the new details seem only to have made Trump more defensive about the whole thing.