On Friday, the Department of Justice indicted 12 Russian operatives for hacking and distributing emails belonging to Democratic officials during the 2016 election. On Monday, an AP reporter at the summit being held between Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin in Helsinki asked Trump about it. His answer was, even in the surreal context of our current political moment, an astounding word salad of debunked conspiracy theories that concluded with an assertion that Putin’s denial of responsibility for the attack was “extremely strong and convincing.” The transcript:
AP: Just now president Putin denied having anything to do with the election interference in 2016. Every U.S. intelligence agency has concluded Russia did. My first question for you, sir, is who do you believe? My second question is would you now with the whole world watching tell president Putin—would you denounce what happened in 2016 and would you warn him to never do it again?
TRUMP: So let me just say we have two thoughts. We have groups that are wondering why the FBI never took the server. Why haven’t they taken the server? Why was the FBI told to leave the office of the Democratic National Committee? I’ve been wondering that. I’ve been asking that for months and months and tweeting it out and calling it out on social media. Where is the server? I want to know, where is the server, and what is the server saying? With that being said, all I can do is ask the question, my people came to me, [director of national intelligence] Dan Coats came to me, and some others, they said, they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this. I don’t see any reason why it would be, but I really do want to see the server, but I have—I have confidence in both parties. I really believe that this will probably go on for a while, but I don’t think it can go on without finding out what happened to the server. What happened to the servers of the Pakistani gentleman that worked on the DNC. Where are those servers? They’re missing. Where are they? What happened to Hillary Clinton’s e-mails? 33,000 e-mails gone, just gone. I think in Russia they wouldn’t be gone so easily. I think it’s a disgrace we can’t get Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 e-mails. So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today. And what he did, is an incredible offer. He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators, with respect to the 12 people. I think that’s an incredible offer. Okay? Thank you.
Let’s unpack this.
• The FBI examined copies of the data on the DNC’s server rather than the physical server itself. There’s no reason to think this would have caused them to falsely blame Russian actors for a crime that someone else committed. (The evidence that Russia was responsible for 2016 hacking is extensive.)
• Hillary Clinton deleted what she described as purely personal messages before giving the State Department an archive of her email correspondence from her tenure as Secretary of State. While one can argue over whether this was appropriate given public transparency laws, it obviously has no bearing on the question of whether Russian operatives hacked her campaign chairman John Podesta and the Democratic National Committee at a later date.
• Federal authorities investigated a Pakistani immigrant named Imran Awan, who performed IT work for Democratic congresswoman and former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, for potential involvement in fraud involving congressional computer systems; conspiracy theorists have suggested he therefore might have been involved in the DNC hack. Awan, however, was ultimately only convicted of fraud involving a loan application—and in a filing related to his case, prosecutors from Trump’s own DOJ noted specifically that they had found no evidence that Awan “illegally removed House data from the House network or from House Members’ offices, stole the House Democratic Caucus Server, stole or destroyed House information technology equipment, or improperly accessed or transferred government information, including classified or sensitive information.”
• Putin’s “offer,” detailed at another point in the press conference, was to allow U.S. investigators into Russia to question suspected hackers in return for Russians being allowed into the U.S. to investigate the case of Bill Browder, a businessman who campaigned successfully for international sanctions against Russia after he was defrauded by Russian gangsters and an investigator working for him was brutally killed while in Russian state custody. To anyone who understands the Browder case, Putin’s “offer” was obviously in some sense facetious—not so, apparently, to Trump. (Putin also more broadly reiterated a previous offer to work with the U.S. to create a joint cybersecurity committee.)
We have been blessed to live in interesting times.