In a stunning exchange Monday during a press conference between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the former KGB agent offered to host American law enforcement officials who are currently investigating foreign meddling in U.S. elections.
The proposal comes after the Department of Justice last week indicted 12 active Russian military intelligence officers for allegedly hacking the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) before selectively leaking stolen material through a collage of websites during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Trump appeared to approve of the idea, calling it “an incredible offer” for members of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team to travel to Russia as part of their broad investigation into Russian interference in the elections.
“[Putin] offered to have the people working on this case come and work with their investigators with respect to the 12 people,” Trump said.
Putin also said he would expect “reciprocity,” with Russian investigators allowed to look into actions by U.S. intelligence agencies.
It’s unclear how such a process would work. The two countries signed a mutual legal assistance treaty in 1999. U.S. law enforcement actions against Russian hackers have typically occurred outside Russia’s borders.
Throughout the press conference, Trump remained skeptical of Russia’s role in the hacking of U.S. political groups in 2016 and using social media accounts to manipulate domestic public opinion — findings uncovered by a historic January 2017 intelligence community assessment. Trump’s comments drew bipartisan outrage on social media from current and former U.S. officials, including former CIA Director John Brennan, who tweeted that they were “nothing short of treasonous.”
Senior U.S. intelligence officials and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle contend that Russia was behind a complex and expansive operation that used hacking, digital propaganda and other techniques to influence the American political process.
“It’s not a serious proposal but the ability to reach out and intimidate people in the United States who he thinks are enemies … there was a message embedded in that as well,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fl.. “If I was the ruler of a country where my opponents are either dead or in jail, I controlled the media, I controlled the elections, I control every political lever in the nation, then sure I would be pretty comfortable allowing you to do certain things because I feel like I could control the outcome.”
On Monday, Putin — as he has done consistently in the past — denied his country had ever engaged in “so-called interference.” In response, Trump said “I don’t see any reason why it would be,” a conclusion that goes against the intelligence community assessment.
The idea of a joint cybersecurity group between the two countries was also once again mentioned as a possible solution, although details were lacking. The same idea was widely mocked last time it came up following the first Trump-Putin meeting in 2017.
“I think President Trump’s actions today were outrageous,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said at a small event in D.C. Monday following the news. “The President of the United States sided with Vladimir Putin over the unanimous assessment of the U.S. intelligence community, over the bipartisan conclusion of the Senate Intelligence committee, over the acknowledgement of Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, social media platforms that Russia manipulated. And again, sided with Putin instead of our allies who came from Canada, across Europe, to share how we can stop some of this Russian interference.”
“I think in the coming days it’s going to be time for all of us to stand up and say which side we’re on,” said Warner.