A new indictment accusing Russian intelligence officers of hacking Democrats to interfere in the 2016 presidential election has increased pressure on President Donald Trump to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin when the two meet in Helsinki on Monday for their first summit.
The new charges have also spurred a growing number of Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to call for Trump to cancel the meeting. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told NBC News on Friday that the summit “was still on.”
“I hope it’s high noon in Helsinki,” John Carlin, former chief of staff and senior counsel to special counsel Robert Mueller, said Friday on CNBC’s “Power Lunch.” “This is a faceoff between the leader of the free world and Putin’s Russia, who’s been determined to undermine democracy.”
Mueller announced a slew of new charges against Russian nationals Friday for conspiring to interfere in the 2016 election.
The timing of the announcement raised questions about whether it will impact the president’s overseas diplomacy. Trump was in England meeting with Queen Elizabeth II at the moment Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein released the news, and the president had participated in a joint press conference with Prime Minister Theresa May just prior.
All eyes, however, will be turned to his meeting with Putin, which Trump had characterized earlier in the week as perhaps “the easiest” part of his overseas trip, which began with the NATO summit on Wednesday.
Trump said during his campaign for the presidency that he would improve the United States’ relationship with Russia, a project that has become complicated by the investigation into whether any of his associates have had improper ties to Russia.
As president, Trump has repeatedly called for warming relations with the country, even as allies have condemned Putin’s annexation of Crimea and other actions the Russian government is alleged to have been involved in, including the poisoning of former Russian nationals living in the U.K.
As with the special counsel’s previous indictments, news of who would be charged — and when — was a closely guarded secret. Until minutes before the announcement, even some senior Senate staff assumed the Justice Department would not issue Russia-related news so close to the president’s meeting with Putin.
Rosenstein asserted that the timing of the new indictment was based on “the facts, the law, and Department of Justice policies.”
“The indictment was returned today because prosecutors determined that the evidence was sufficient to present these allegations to a federal grand jury,” Rosenstein added.
Still, the timing of the indictment seemed to show Trump’s own Justice Department rebutting comments the president had made just hours before.
Earlier in the day, the president had downplayed Russian meddling efforts, reiterating his claims that the special counsel’s probe was a “rigged witch hunt” and saying it hurt his efforts to draw the two countries closer together.
“We do have a political problem where, you know, in the United States we have this stupidity going on. Pure stupidity. But it makes it very hard to do something with Russia,” Trump told reporters during the joint press conference with May on Friday. “Anything you do, it’s always going to be, ‘Oh, Russia, he loves Russia.’ I love the United States. But I love getting along with Russia.”
In a statement issued after the charges were made public, the White House shrugged off the idea that the administration would be negatively affected by the news.
“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,” Deputy Press Secretary Lindsay Walters said in a statement. “This is consistent with what we have been saying all along.”
The president’s attorney Rudy Giuliani called the charges “good news for all Americans,” and called on the special counsel to “end this pursuit of the president and say President Trump is completely innocent.”
The indictment made no mention of the president.
Trump said Friday that he planned to address election meddling in his Monday meeting with Putin, though he has wavered on the issue. The White House has said the two will discuss the crisis in Syria and nuclear nonproliferation, among other topics.
“You never know about meetings, what happens, right,” the president told reporters last month regarding whether he would address election meddling.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Putin does not view Trump as a friend or an enemy but as a “negotiation counterpart,” according to a Friday article in the Russian state news agency Tass. Trump had expressed his desire to become Putin’s friend during a news conference in Brussels earlier in the week.
The new indictment, the second to be levied against a group of Russian nationals by the special counsel in connection with election interference, highlights Trump’s reluctance to accept the intelligence community’s conclusions about Russia’s election meddling.
The collection of government intelligence agencies released a report in January 2017 that said Russia hacked into accounts belonging to senior Democratic officials and released the information to the public.
“We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump,” the report said.
Trump has repeatedly called the Russia probe a “hoax” and has appeared at times to prefer Russia’s interpretation of its role in the election over his administration’s.
“Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election! Where is the DNC Server, and why didn’t Shady James Comey and the now disgraced FBI agents take and closely examine it?” he wrote in the June 28 post.
Some leaders of his administration have followed suit: Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in May she was “not aware” of the conclusion that Russia favored Trump’s candidacy.
Just three days before the indictments were announced, Trump said his meeting with Putin might be the “easiest of them all.” It isn’t clear if Trump was aware of the indictments at the time he made the announcement, though Rosenstein said he had briefed Trump on the latest charges earlier this week.
Democrats have long used Mueller’s probe as a political cudgel. Schumer called on Trump to cancel his summit with Putin following the announcement of the charges.
“President Trump should cancel his meeting with Vladimir Putin until Russia takes demonstrable and transparent steps to prove that they won’t interfere in future elections,” Schumer said. “Glad-handing with Vladimir Putin on the heels of these indictments would be an insult to our democracy.”
Sen. Mark Warner, the leading Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote Friday that Trump should cancel the meeting unless he planned to make election meddling the top issue on the agenda.
The Senate intel panel is investigating the government’s response to Russian election meddling. The bipartisan committee released a declassified summary report last week that upheld the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia backed Trump’s presidential bid.
Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska who has been critical of the president in the past, wrote Friday that “Putin is not America’s friend, and he is not the President’s buddy.”
“The U.S. intelligence community knows that the Russian Government attacked the U.S. This is not a Republican or a Democratic view — it is simply the reality,” Sasse wrote.