Indictments of Russian operatives cast shadow on Trump-Putin summit

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department’s disclosure that a dozen Russian military intelligence officers have been indicted by a grand jury for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election has elevated the Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki Monday to crisis proportions.

President Trump, who previously had insisted he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin when he said there was no Russian involvement, immediately clung to that view despite the indictments from special counsel Robert Mueller.

At the same time, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, overseeing the Mueller investigation, said there was no evidence in the materials released of involvement by the Trump campaign, but no assurance either that there was none.

Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, a member of a House committee investigating the matter, immediately called on Trump to pull out of the Helsinki meeting in the face of the Justice Department’s indictment. So did Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer of New York.

But Trump’s first reaction was to dig in, repeating his allegation that the whole investigation was “a rigged witch hunt” and that the indictments were vindication of him and his campaign.

Notably, the president was advised of the coming indictments in advance but proceeded with plans for the Putin meeting anyhow. Earlier he had sought it with boasts it would be the easiest for him after a week of other foreign meetings in Europe.

The timing of the Justice Department’s indictments immediately shoved aside interest in Trump’s earlier stops at a NATO meeting in Brussels and a visit to British Prime Minister Theresa May in England, before a planned weekend visit to one of his golf courses in Scotland and his scheduled Monday meeting in Helsinki with Putin, whom the president has been resolutely romancing and praising as a “fine” if overtly authoritarian leader that he himself aspires to be.

Trump said in Brussels he would ask Putin again about alleged interference in the U.S. elections. “All I can do is say, ‘Did you?’ and ‘Don’t do it again.’ But he may deny it,” Trump said. Later, he added, apparently as a joke, that he did not anticipate “a Perry Mason moment” in which Putin would say “I did it.”

That was far from drawing a line against such interference. The question now, if indeed the meeting does take place in light of the latest disclosures, is whether the president will at last confront Putin with the solid case of meddling in hand, or continue to take his word contrary to that evidence.

While the report on the latest indictments noted that lack of evidence of Trump collusion in the meddling, Justice officials also noted that the Mueller investigation was continuing. That fact suggests that one avenue of exploration will be determining whether there were identifiable Americans on the receiving end of hacking efforts with any connection to the Trump campaign.

There is no expectation that any of the 12 Russian military intelligence officers listed in the indictment can or will be extradited to the United States for trial. But the Mueller investigation goes on, with the likely quest for any Americans who might have been involved in the hacks as subjects or collaborators.

Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen of Tenneessee, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, noted that the Mueller indictments named special Russian intelligence officers involved in the hacking of Americans, including members of the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Hillary Clinton campaign and various state elections officials. It proved “Russia is not a competitor” as Trump said, but that “Russia is a foe,” he said.

The case of Russian meddling that has haunted Trump through the first year and more of his presidency, dismissed by him so far, is front and center again. His tussles with NATO allies have now been reduced to sideshows to a major Trump-Putin showdown on the American elections meddling in our democratic process, past and future. Will Trump stand up to it at last?

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