WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin raised alarms with U.S. election experts who worry the exchange will empower Moscow to sway voters before the midterm elections.
"Trump’s behavior has likely emboldened Putin and the interference efforts,” said John Wonderlich, executive director at the Sunlight Foundation. “It’s stunning to have the president of the United States essentially hang out a welcome sign” for hackers.
Standing next to Putin at a news conference in Helsinki on Monday, Trump questioned U.S. intelligence assessments that Russia tried to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election and blasted a Justice Department inquiry of that effort that led to 12 indictments last week.
Cybersecurity and election analysts who followed Russia's information and hacking strategy in 2016 worry the lack of public rebuke will send a message to Russia and other countries that they will not be punished or called out for similar attacks.
Matthew Waxman, a professor and expert in national security law at Columbia Law School, blamed both President Barack Obama and Trump for not taking steps to deter Russian cyberattacks, which included an extensive information campaign on social media, as well as efforts to access and publicize private Democratic emails.
Trump's acceptance of Putin's denial in Helsinki, which drew bipartisan criticism on Capitol Hill on Monday, did little to improve that situation, he said.
"Trump's performance with Putin will only embolden Russia in its efforts to undermine democracy, not just here but among our allies," Waxman said.
A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
In a series of posts on Twitter after the meeting with Putin, Trump said he is working to establish a better relationship with Moscow rather than antagonizing its president. Speaking at the White House Tuesday, Trump walked back some of his comments and said that "we're doing everything in our power to prevent Russian interference in 2018."
Putin, a former KGB agent, said Trump raised election meddling during private meetings Monday, but he denied his government interfered with "internal American affairs."
Waxman said Russia is achieving its objectives by sowing political divisions within the USA and undermining trust in democratic institutions. The House Intelligence Committee released thousands of Kremlin-linked advertisements purchased on Facebook in the run up to the 2016 election, and federal officials notified nearly two dozen states last year of Russian efforts to hack their election systems.
Last week, DOJ investigators indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officers in a wide-ranging hacking scheme. The 11-count indictment – a result of the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller – alleges Russians "engaged in a sustained effort'' to penetrate Democratic data.
Analysts said the influence campaign has continued as the United States heads toward what is sure to be another contentious election this year. Control of Congress, Trump's legislative agenda and governors races in 36 states are in play in November.
Trump brushed aside concerns from his intelligence officials Monday and blamed the investigation of the issue for souring U.S.-Russian relations.
"So I have great confidence in my intelligence people," Trump said, "but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial."
Clint Watts, a cyber and homeland security expert and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said the back-and-forth with Putin sent a signal not just to Russia but to other countries – allies and foes alike – that feel they have a stake in the outcome of U.S. elections.
"Why shouldn’t we try to influence the Americans?" Watts said, describing that message.