President Donald Trump doubted the U.S. intelligence assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election during a freewheeling press conference with Vladimir Putin on Monday, adding he didn’t “see any reason why” Moscow would hack the election.
When asked if he believed American intelligence agencies or Putin regarding whether Moscow boosted his campaign, Trump demurred. “All I can do is ask the question”, explained Trump during the Helsinki summit. In his response, Putin again denied meddling in the 2016 election.
Putin, a former Russian intelligence officer, again suggested the creation of a joint working group on cybersecurity with the U.S. When asked about special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment on Friday that presented evidence 12 Russian officials boosted Trump’s presidential effort, Putin suggested the working group could be a forum to share intelligence.
Putin also said that Mueller’s team could travel to Russia and be present during questioning of the 12 accused intelligence officials on the condition that Moscow could reciprocate with investigations in America. Trump said it was “an incredible offer.”
Last year, U.S. and Russian officials agreed to form a working group to handle cybersecurity issues, although there was little follow up. Monday’s press conference appears to be the first time the issue was brought up again.
“Operating a joint working group on cybersecurity in order to examine the digital and forensic evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election would be both counterproductive and dangerous. Enabling Russia to gain an even greater understanding of U.S. cyber defenses and analytic capabilities would put American citizens and businesses at even greater risk of attack,” said Priscilla Moriuchi, Recorded Future’s Director of Strategic Threat Development, in an email. “Putin does not seek transparency in cyber operations with the United States, he seeks an advantage in what he views as a zero-sum power struggle with the West. A joint cyber operations working group would grant him that advantage.”
Seemingly in response to Trump’s statements, the top American intelligence official, Dan Coats, said that the intellingece community has “been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy."
On Friday, Coats said that Russia has been the most aggressive actor in cyberspace, and Moscow continues to spread disinformation in the U.S.
Reaction to the President’s comments was swift outside his administration as well. John Brennan, CIA chief during the Obama administration, said that the press conference “rises to the point of good American patriots resigning,” on MSNBC. “I cannot understand how the national security team can continue to abide by this.”
Initial republican reaction was also critical. “We must take serious the warnings of Director Coats and the American intelligence community,” wrote Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind. “Russia is not our friend.”
Justin Lynch is the Associate Editor at Fifth Domain. He has written for the New Yorker, the Associated Press, Foreign Policy, the Atlantic, and others. Follow him on Twitter @just1nlynch.