After emerging from a more than two-hour closed door one-on-one meeting in Helsinki with Vladimir Putin – just days after Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian military officers for hacking the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and interfering in the 2016 election – President Trump seemed to believe the Russian president's assertion that his country didn't meddle in the U.S. democratic process.
"President Putin, he just said it's not Russia, let me just say, I don't see any reason why it would be," Trump said at a press conference.
At his side, Putin referred to the “so-called Russian interference,” saying that during his talk with Trump, "I had to reiterate things I said several times, including during our personal contacts, that the Russian state has never interfered and is not going to interfere in internal American affairs, including the election process."
The officers indicted by Mueller Friday are part of Russia's GRU military intelligence unit. The DNC and other hacks yielded a trove of documents, many of which were spread under the auspices of Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks, in attempt to cast Trump's opponent Hillary Clinton in an unfavorable light.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said Russian operatives also hacked a state election board and nicked data on 500,000 voters.
The intelligence community has concluded beyond a shadow of a doubt that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections,” said Fortalice Solutions CEO Theresa Payton, former White House CIO under President George W. Bush.
“In 2016, Russian hackers attacked every major system in our democratic process, from stealing private DNC emails to possibly altering state databases of voter registration data,” Payton explained, contending they now “are entering the 2018 midterms with an even better understanding of the flaws in our cybersecurity.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., tweeted that the Helsinki meeting was a “missed opportunity by President Trump to firmly hold Russia accountable for 2016 meddling and deliver a strong warning regarding future elections.”
Former Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Michael Steele had stronger words, tweeting, “That's how a press conference sounds when an Asset stands next to his Handler.”
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., ranking member of the Committee on Homeland Security and co-chairman of the Congressional Task Force on Election Security, said in a statement that Trump "could have confronted Putin today for his attack on our country and our elections," but didn't, noting that when "the president openly takes the word of Putin over the findings of our intelligence community, he sends the integrity of our democracy down a very dark path."
Trump has long been skeptical of the U.S. intelligence community's findings that Russia, through a series of cyberattacks and an influence campaign, interfered with the election. He has often decried Mueller's probe as folly. Shortly before the meet-up in Helsinki, Trump tweeted, ‘‘Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse,'' blaming ‘‘many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!''
Lawmakers and cybersecurity professionals are renewing calls for securing upcoming elections. “Securing our midterm elections will need to take every form possible, but one of the main avenues of defense will be in cybersecurity,” said Payton. “The biggest area of meddling is not likely to be direct hacking of voting booths and registered voter rolls but the use of social media, with fake personas, to shape the debate and create misperceptions and false news stories designed to advantage or hurt certain candidates.”