The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After being told of Russia indictments, Trump still aspired to be friends with Putin

In this Nov. 11, 201,7 file photo, President Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin talk at the APEC Summit in Danang, Vietnam. (Jorge Silva/AP)

HELSINKI — Before he embarked on a week of transatlantic diplomacy, President Trump sat down with Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who previewed for the boss an explosive development: The Justice Department would soon indict 12 Russian intelligence officers for hacking Democratic emails to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

For the first time, the United States would be charging Russian government agents with planning and executing a sustained cyberattack to disrupt America’s democratic process. Yet Trump gave no sign in his commentary in Europe this week that he appreciated the magnitude of what he had been told was coming.

Instead, he repeated his frequent attacks on the integrity of the wide-ranging Russia probe led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — while offering kind words for Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, who he is slated to meet here in Helsinki on Monday.

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)

Trump said Putin should not be considered his enemy but rather his competitor — and after spending some time together here in this vibrant seaside Nordic capital, Trump said he hoped they might quickly become friends.

Trump pledged to ask Putin in their tete-a-tete whether Russia interfered in the election — “your favorite question about meddling,” he said mockingly to a Washington Post reporter. But he said he expected Putin, again, to deny it, and that they then would move on to other subjects.

“There won’t be a Perry Mason moment here, I don’t think,” Trump joked, referring to a witness dramatically reversing his or her testimony to confess a crime.

On Friday, just hours before Rosenstein announced the indictments from Justice Department headquarters in Washington, Trump stood on foreign soil — at a news conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May at her Chequers estate in the English countryside — and denounced the investigation that produced them.

The special counsel's indictment of 12 Russian military officers is a rebuke of President Trump's many claims that the DNC hack and the Russia probe are a hoax. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

“I would call it the rigged witch hunt,” Trump said of the Mueller probe, which so far has yielded charges or guilty pleas against 32 Russians and Americans, including former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who is in jail.

In the hours after the Justice Department’s indictments were filed, lawmakers from both parties urgently called on Trump to confront Putin, force Russia to change course and guard against another intrusion in future elections.

“These revelations add to a body of evidence confirming an extensive plot by Vladimir Putin’s government to attack the 2016 election, sow chaos and dissension among the American electorate, and undermine faith in our democracy,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a statement. “If President Trump is not prepared to hold Putin accountable, the summit in Helsinki should not move forward.”

Some Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), said Trump should immediately cancel his Helsinki summit with Putin.

“Glad-handing with Vladimir Putin on the heels of these indictments would be an insult to our democracy,” Schumer said in a statement.

Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee signed a letter to Trump that said, “Unfortunately, due to your constant expressions of sympathy for Vladimir Putin, your conflicts of interest, and your attacks on our closest allies, we do not have confidence that you can faithfully negotiate with the Russian leader, and we urge you to cancel the meeting.”

But as night fell Friday in the United Kingdom, where Trump is staying through the weekend, neither the president nor his White House spokesmen condemned Russia for the allegations detailed in the indictments. The meeting in Helsinki was still on.

When he was asked Thursday by a reporter what he would do if Putin denies Russia’s involvement, Trump said, “He may deny it. I mean, it’s one of those things. So all I can do is say, ‘Did you?’ and ‘Don’t do it again.’”

There was no indication late Friday that Trump was preparing to say anything else in their meeting to hold Putin accountable.

Joyce Vance, who served as a U.S. attorney in Alabama during the Obama administration, said Trump’s apparent indifference to the election attack is “shocking.”

“Cyberspace is the new front of warfare and our country was attacked, but instead of treating this like the real Pearl Harbor moment that it is, the president just wants to have business as usual,” Vance said.

Announcing the indictments, Rosenstein bemoaned the extent to which the Russia probe has divided Americans along partisan lines.

“When we confront foreign interference in American elections, it is important for us to avoid thinking politically as Republicans or Democrats and instead to think patriotically as Americans,” Rosenstein said. “The blame for election interference belongs to the criminals who committed election interference. We need to work together to hold the perpetrators accountable.”

U.S. intelligence agencies concluded in October 2016 that Russia orchestrated the hacking of Democratic emails — as well as other tactics, including a campaign to infiltrate social media with fake news — and that the Russian operation was designed explicitly to help Trump defeat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

The emails, some salacious and damaging to Clinton, were illegally released through WikiLeaks. Trump often discussed their contents in his campaign rally speeches. “I love WikiLeaks,” he told one crowd in Pennsylvania. A couple days later in Florida, he said, “It tells you the inner heart. You gotta read it.”

For many months, Trump refused to believe that Russia was behind the hacked emails.

“The new joke in town is that Russia leaked the disastrous DNC e-mails, which should never have been written (stupid), because Putin likes me,” Trump tweeted in July 2016.

At a fall 2016 debate with Clinton, Trump sought to sow doubt that the Russians were behind the hacking by suggesting that it could have been done by the Chinese or by “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”

It was only after he won the election, at a news conference shortly before his inauguration, that Trump stated publicly that Russia committed the hacking, though he has waffled in his public statements since then.

Trump’s advisers have said he resists acknowledging the election interference because he does not want to attribute his election win to any force other than his skills as a candidate.

Trump and his legal team, led by former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, have aggressively attacked the Mueller investigation in recent months, part of a more combative approach designed in part to turn Trump’s loyal supporters against it and sow doubt in its eventual findings.

Trump regularly tweets the phrase “witch hunt” — sometimes spelled in all-capital letters — to vent about the Mueller operation or to stir up people against it. But Democrats say he is not taking the investigation seriously enough.

John D. Podesta, the former Clinton campaign chairman whose personal email account was among those hacked, told ABC News, “Donald Trump likes to describe this as a ‘witch hunt.’ Well, we just found some witches, and they were indicted.”