President Donald Trump’s phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday was less notable for what was said than what wasn’t.
In a more than hour-long call, which Trump characterized as a “very good and long conversation,” the two leaders discussed what he referred to as the “Russian hoax,” including their reactions to the Mueller report. Trump didn’t, however, confront Putin directly about Russian meddling in upcoming US elections, a threat that was raised as one of the biggest takeaways in the incredibly comprehensive 400-page report.
According to White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump and Putin “very briefly” spoke about special counsel Robert Mueller’s conclusion not to charge the Trump campaign with conspiring with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election. The conversation was “essentially in the context that it’s over and there was no collusion, which I’m pretty sure both leaders were both very well aware of long before this call took place,” Sanders said.
Sanders is right that Mueller did not find that Trump deliberately worked with Moscow to sway the 2016 election. But as a key line of the report states, the special counsel’s 22-month investigation did establish “that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.”
Many top national security officials have also emphasized that Russian interference efforts aren’t expected to subside as 2020 approaches. “We recognize that our adversaries are going to keep adapting and upping their game,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said during an event last week, where he noted that Russia’s ongoing meddling is a “significant counterintelligence threat.”
Trump, however, said he did not question Putin about Russian meddling in future US elections during their recent call.
“We didn’t discuss that, really we didn’t discuss that,” Trump said. “We discussed five or six things. We also went into great detail on various things especially ... Venezuela. We talked about North Korea at great length.”
....We discussed Trade, Venezuela, Ukraine, North Korea, Nuclear Arms Control and even the “Russian Hoax.” Very productive talk!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 3, 2019
Alongside top national security officials, members of Trump’s own party have expressly acknowledged the threat that Russia posed to the legitimacy of the 2016 election — and the threat it and other foreign governments could pose in 2020. But Trump himself simply won’t talk about it. Just this week, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally, said he sees Russian meddling as “a big deal” that could warrant sanctions, while the president seems very reluctant to acknowledge the same.
“Getting along with Russia and China, getting along with all of ’em is a good thing, not a bad thing, it’s a good thing, it’s a positive thing,” Trump said on Friday.
Trump’s resistance to directly press Putin about Russia’s role in election interference is an issue that’s come up again and again. In November 2017, Trump said he simply believed Putin when he said Russia wasn’t involved in meddling — though his own intelligence chiefs repeatedly said otherwise. “He said he didn’t meddle. He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times,” Trump said during a visit to Vietnam.
Despite the overwhelming evidence laid out in the Mueller report to the contrary, it appears Trump’s feelings haven’t exactly changed in the year since. Trump’s dedication to pushing his “no collusion” message seems to have obscured his willingness to note that Russia was trying to mess with the US election at all.
In refusing to openly address this threat, however, Trump raises an alarming concern: He’s avoiding the question of how he’d effectively be able to prevent it from happening again.