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Will Trump confront Putin at Helsinki summit?

Critics think Monday’s Helsinki Summit will be a disaster. Supporters, who prefer his blase attitude against the status quo, support him.

Regardless, this could make for an interesting week.

United States President Donald Trump is scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, addressing a range of topics from interference in U.S. elections, softening of Russian sanctions, Ukraine, Syria, among other things. No official agenda has been set. Trump said, during a CBS interview that aired on Sunday night, he’s entering Monday’s meeting with “very low expectations”.

It was the same interview he called the European Union a “foe”. Writes VOX:

“Well, I think we have a lot of foes,” Trump said when asked by CBS Evening News anchor Jeff Glor about who he thinks America’s biggest foe is, globally, right now. “I think the European Union is a foe, what they do to us is 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.”

Monday’s summit comes on the heels of special council Robert Mueller indicting 12 Russian government officers in the 2016 hacking of emails and computer networks used by Democrats, designed to help Trump win the election (some have criticized this as Mueller’s “gotcha” moment after being subjected to many anger-fueled tweets from the President). “All 12 defendants are members of the GRU, a Russian federation intelligence agency within the main intelligence directorate of the Russian military, who were acting in ‘their official capacities‘”, writes Katelyn Polantz and Stephen Collinson.

In light of these indictments, Congressional Democrats have called on Trump to cancel the summit. Republican Senator John McCain joined them.

Rather than acknowledge the veracity of the report and provide public assurances to a divided populous, Trump’s instinct was to… blame Obama.

The truth is, President Obama didn’t do much either. Writes VOX:

The FBI in July 2016 began investigating the Russian government’s meddling in the US election. The following month, the CIA informed Obama there was evidence that Putin was directly involved in the attacks. He asked his team, including Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and CIA Director John Brennan, to look into the matter, and multiple other members of the administration were pulled in.

Leaders for both parties bickered at the time about how to proceed: Democrats wanted Obama to go public while Republicans were skeptical of the intelligence. The Washington Post wrote, “Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went further, officials said, voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims.” Obama went public in October 2016.

Friday’s indictment is sensational, accusing Russian operatives of (per Axios):

  • Leasing server space in Arizona and a computer in Illinois;
  • Using bitcoin to purchase servers, buy domains, and pay for “other election-hacking activity”;
  • “Russian military used screenshots and keystroke-capture to monitor dozens of DCCC and DNC employees”;
  • Russian military “extracted opposition research on Republican candidates in bulk from the DNC, as part of a multi-gigabyte haul”;

These aren’t just accusations; this is evidence of a greater conspiracy against the United States.

The most severe:

  • Two of the officers conspired “to hack into the computers of U.S. persons and entities responsible for the administration of 2016 U.S. elections, such as state boards of elections, secretaries of state, and U.S. companies that supplied software and other technology related to the administration of U.S. elections.”

  • And they actually pulled it off: “In or around July 2016, [Russian military officer Anatoliy Sergeyevich Kovalev] and his co-conspirators hacked the website of [an unnamed] state board of elections … and stole information related to approximately 500,000 voters, including names, addresses, partial social security numbers, dates of birth, and driver’s license numbers.”

The question becomes… how will the United States government respond?

Sanctions is one likely approach, one that’s been used before:

  • On December 29, 2016, President Obama issued an executive order that sanctioned Russian individuals and companies; the sanctions also “ordered 35 Russian diplomats to leave the country and two Russian compounds are being closed“. “Russia’s cyberactivities were intended to influence the election, erode faith in US democratic institutions, sow doubt about the integrity of our electoral process, and undermine confidence in the institutions of the US government,” a White House statement said. “These actions are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”
  • Congress passed a bill limiting the President’s power to ease sanctions, while also imposing new sanctions on North Korea and Iran. The House passed the bill (419-3 vote) on July 25, 2017; the Senate version passed (98-2) on July 27, 2017. Per Reuters: “The bill would affect a range of Russian industries and might further hurt the Russian economy, already weakened by 2014 sanctions imposed after Russia annexed Crime from Ukraine.” President Trump, who threatened a veto, signed the bill on August 2, 2017 (Congress had the power to overrule his veto anyway).

During a press conference from last week’s NATO summit, Trump was asked if he’ll raise the issue but has little “recourse” if Putin denies it. “Look, he may. What am I going to do? He may deny it,” Trump said via the Washington Post. “All I can do is say, ‘Did you?’ And, ‘Don’t do it again.’ But he may deny it.”

Spoiler Alert: Putin is totally going to deny it.

In the meantime, Mueller’s investigation continues. While Trump and his supporters are obsessively focused on “collusion”, Mueller appears focused on his mandate — to “ensure a full and thorough investigation of the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 Presidential election” and “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”

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