Analysis: The facts missing from Trump and Putin's news conference

 
 
Updated 7/17/2018 6:42 AM
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  • U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands Monday at the beginning of a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland.

    U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands Monday at the beginning of a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland. Associated Press

President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia made a series of questionable claims at a news conference following their summit meeting in Helsinki on July 16.

Trump was asked whether he believed the U.S. intelligence community's assessment that Russia interfered in the presidential election in 2016, or whether he believed Putin's denials. Remarkably, Trump said he had "confidence in both parties."

This prompted a statement from Dan Coats, the president's director of national intelligence. "We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy," Coats said.

Trump's claim wasn't the only one worth fact-checking from his news conference with Putin. We rounded up several more from both presidents.

"Trump: 'My people came to me, 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.'

" 'I have confidence in both parties ... 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.'

"Putin: 'President Donald Trump mentioned the issue of the so-called interference of Russia with the American elections, and 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 into internal American affairs, including election process.' "

Overwhelming evidence shows that Russia orchestrated a campaign of cyberespionage and propaganda to interfere in the U.S. presidential election in 2016. The U.S. intelligence community, the Department of Justice, and the House and Senate intelligence committees have all arrived at this conclusion.

Three days before Trump and Putin's summit, a grand jury convened by Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers working for a military agency known as the GRU.

The Mueller indictment describes in granular detail how the GRU officers used phishing techniques in 2016 to hack into the computer networks of Hillary Clinton's campaign, the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The Russian intelligence officers allegedly stole documents from these Democratic committees and strategically released them in the run-up to the election through a website they set up called "DCLeaks," through a fictitious hacker persona they dubbed Guccifer 2.0, and through an organization not named in the indictment but widely reported to be WikiLeaks.

In one instance, the Russian officers "hacked the website of a state board of elections ... and stole information related to approximately 500,000 voters, including names, addresses, partial social security numbers, dates of birth, and driver's license numbers," the indictment alleges.

Putin's goal was to help Trump win, according to the U.S. intelligence community's assessment from January 2017.

"Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump's election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him," the assessment says. "All three agencies agree with this judgment. CIA and FBI have high confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence."

The Senate Intelligence Committee found that the January 2017 assessment by the U.S. intelligence agencies "relies on public Russian leadership commentary, Russian state media reports, public examples of where Russian interests would have aligned with candidates' policy statements, and a body of intelligence reporting to support the assessment that Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for Trump."

The Senate Intelligence Committee said it "concurs with intelligence and open-source assessments that this influence campaign was approved by President Putin."

Asked whether he preferred Trump over Clinton in 2016, Putin said in Helsinki: "Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal."

Shortly after Putin claimed "the Russian state has never interfered and is not going to interfere into internal American affairs," the Justice Department announced it had charged a 29-year-old Russian citizen in the United States for conspiring "to infiltrate organizations active in U.S. politics in an effort to advance the interests of the Russian Federation without prior notification to the Attorney General."

These charges don't stem from Mueller's investigation, but the defendant, Maria Butina, is accused of secretly working as an agent of the Russian government as she sought to influence U.S. politics. The lesson here is that there's a mountain of evidence contradicting Putin's claims of no interference at all in American politics -- fresh evidence emerged the same day as this news conference.

U.S. intelligence agencies and lawmakers from both parties say they believe Russia is planning to meddle in this year's midterm elections. "Russia, like its Soviet predecessor, has a history of conducting covert influence campaigns focused on U.S. presidential elections that have used intelligence officers and agents and press placements to disparage candidates perceived as hostile to the Kremlin," according to the U.S. intelligence community assessment from 2017.

"The role of the intelligence community is to provide the best information and fact-based assessments possible for the president and policymakers," Coats said in a statement July 16 after Trump's remarks in Helsinki. "We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security."

"Trump: 'There was no collusion at all. Everybody knows it. And people are being brought out to the fore. So far that I know, virtually none of it related to the campaign. And they're going to have to try really hard to find somebody that did relate to the campaign.'

"Putin: 'Could you name a single fact that would definitely prove the collusion? This is utter nonsense, just like the president recently mentioned.' "

Mueller's investigation is ongoing. It's too early to say whether or not he has found, or will find, any evidence of cooperation between Russia and Trump's presidential campaign.

Reporters have pieced together a series of contacts between Russian individuals and Trump campaign advisers.

On June 3, 2016, a music publicist named Rob Goldstone emailed Donald Trump Jr. offering "very high level and sensitive information" that could "incriminate Hillary." Goldstone described this as part of "Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump." Trump Jr. responded, "If it's what you say I love it especially later in the summer." Goldstone set up a meeting with a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya.

On June 9, 2016, the meeting at Trump Tower with Veselnitskaya included Trump Jr., Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and Trump's then-campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, among others. Veselnitskaya said "she went to the New York meeting to show Trump campaign officials that major Democratic donors had evaded U.S. taxes and to lobby against the so-called Magnitsky law that punishes Russian officials for the murder of a Russian tax accountant who accused the Kremlin of corruption," according to Bloomberg News.

"Veselnitskaya also said Trump Jr. requested financial documents showing that money that allegedly evaded U.S. taxes had gone to Clinton's campaign," Bloomberg reported. "She didn't have any and described the 20-minute meeting as a failure."

A memo she reportedly brought to the Trump Tower meeting was a close match with a document Russian prosecutors had written two months earlier and shared with a U.S. congressman. This raises the possibility that Veselnitskaya was acting as an agent of the Russian government at the Trump Tower encounter.

"The memo Natalia Veselnitskaya provided to the Trump campaign last year [2016] focused on banker-turned-human rights activist Bill Browder, whose reputation has become inextricably linked to the global human-rights campaign he launched in 2009 after tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in a Russian prison," Business Insider reported. "Magnitsky was thrown in jail and beaten to death after he discovered a $230 million tax fraud scheme that implicated high-level Kremlin officials, Browder says. The US passed the Magnitsky Act in 2012 that sanctioned high-level Russian officials accused of human rights abuses and corruption."

It's noteworthy that Putin, at the Helsinki news conference with Trump, brought up the same Browder-Magnitsky situation.

"We can bring up the Mr. Browder in this particular case," Putin said. "Business associates of Mr. Browder have earned over $1.5 billion in Russia. They never paid any taxes, neither in Russia nor in the United States, and yet the money escaped the country. They were transferred to the United States. They sent huge amount of money, $400 million as a contribution to the campaign of Hillary Clinton. Well, that's the personal case. It might have been legal, the contribution itself, but the way the money was earned was illegal." (There's no evidence that Browder or his associates contributed $400 million to Clinton's campaign.)

In 2017, Browder testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that, from 1996 to 2005, his firm Hermitage Capital "was one of the largest investment advisers in Russia," with "more than $4 billion invested in Russian stocks." His investment firm "named and shamed" oligarchs who stole from shareholders -- an effort, Browder said, that Putin initially supported. That changed in 2003, he testified, and Browder was expelled from Russia just over two years later.

After the falling-out with Putin, Browder hired Magnitsky, a Russian tax accountant, to investigate a suspected theft from his Russian companies. Magnitsky was arrested and died in prison in 2009 under suspicious circumstances. Browder's advocacy of Magnitsky's case led Congress to pass the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which bars Russian officials believed to be involved in the accountant's death from entering the United States or using its banking system. In response, Russia blocked U.S. parents from adopting Russian children.

Since then, the Kremlin has gone to great lengths to discredit Browder. In 2013, a Russian court sentenced him in absentia to nine years in prison for failing to pay $500 million in taxes. He was put on trial in absentia again in 2017.

Putin said the United States should help Russia investigate Browder, but he renounced his U.S. citizenship and resides in London.

We previously drew up a list of all known contacts between Russians and Trump campaign advisers. Several Trump advisers met with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, during the campaign, including Michael Flynn, who later resigned as Trump's national security adviser for failing to fully disclose those contacts to Vice President Mike Pence. Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty on Oct. 5, 2017, to lying to federal agents about his contacts with people with connections to the Russian government during the campaign.

The Washington Post reported that Manafort during the campaign "offered to provide briefings on the race to a Russian billionaire closely aligned with the Kremlin," Oleg Deripaska.

The House intelligence committee's Republican majority released a report that found "no evidence" of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. But the report said investigations "by other committees, the special counsel, the media, or interest groups will continue and may find facts that were not readily accessible to the Committee or outside the scope of our investigation." Democrats on the panel strongly disagreed with the majority report's conclusions, noting that there were many documented contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian individuals during the campaign.

"Putin: 'The Concord company that was brought up is being accused -- it's been accused of interference. But this company does not constitute the Russian state. It does not represent the Russian state ... We are now talking about private individuals, not about particular states.' "

Before Mueller's grand jury indicted the 12 Russian intelligence officers working directly for Putin's government, it indicted several Russian individuals working for a "troll farm" called the internet Research Agency.

Two Russian companies -- called Concord Catering and Concord Management and Consulting -- provided the internet Research Agency with millions of dollars to buy digital ads and to pump pro-Trump and anti-Clinton messaging into the U.S. ecosystem in 2016, Mueller's indictment alleges.

Among those indicted was Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin, one of the richest men in Russia. Prigozhin "controlled" the two Concord companies that funded the troll farm and directed its work, Mueller alleged. "He is a caterer who has been nicknamed 'Putin's chef' because of his close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin," The Post reported.

The New York Times reported that Prighozin has received contracts from the Russian government worth $3.1 billion over the past five years, citing research by the Anti-Corruption Foundation, a group set up by Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.

The U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Prigozhin and Concord over Russia's occupation of Crimea and military actions in Ukraine in 2016, and then imposed more sanctions in March based on "malicious cyber-enabled activities."

"Prigozhin has extensive business dealings with the Russian Federation Ministry of Defense, and a company with significant ties to him holds a contract to build a military base near the Russian Federation border with Ukraine," the Treasury Department said in 2016 when it announced Prighozin's Ukraine-related sanctions. "Russia has been building additional military bases near the Ukrainian border and has used these bases as staging points for deploying soldiers into Ukraine."

In Helsinki, Putin said Concord did not "represent" or "constitute" the Russian state. But the indictment leaves open the possibility that Russian government officials contributed to the internet Research Agency's efforts; it says the named defendants worked "together with others known and unknown to the grand jury."

"Moscow's influence campaign followed a Russian messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations -- such as cyber activity -- with overt efforts by Russian government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or 'trolls,'" according to the January 2017 assessment by the U.S. intelligence community.

"Trump: '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 I've been tweeting it out and calling it out on social media. Where is the server? ... What happened to the servers of the Pakistani gentleman that worked on the DNC? ... I have confidence in both parties [Putin and the U.S. intelligence community]. 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.'

"Putin: "I'd like to add something to this. After all, I was an intelligence officer myself, and I do know how dossiers are made up.' "

There's disagreement whether the FBI requested access to the DNC's servers. Former FBI Director James Comey testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee that the FBI made "multiple requests at different levels" to access DNC's servers, but the DNC said the FBI never requested access. The DNC ultimately allowed Crowdstrike, a private company, to review its database and share findings with the FBI, which Comey testified "was an appropriate substitute."

Cyber security expert Thomas Rid said that "handing over the server" as Trump described could have destroyed evidence.

"What they need to see is how the traffic moves," said Rid, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. If investigators were surveilling a house, Rid said, they would want to know who goes in and out. The same is true of investigating server traffic, he added. Having the physical object, whether a house or a server, is not nearly as helpful as knowing who goes in and out, Rid said.

The "Pakistani gentleman" Trump referenced is Imran Awan, a naturalized U.S. citizen and former IT specialist on Capitol Hill. Awan and four others were banned from the House network after being accused of violating security protocols in February 2017. This investigation provided fodder for several conspiracy theories on right-wing media. Trump previously attempted to tie the hacking of the DNC server to Awan (not Russia).

On July 3, Awan pleaded guilty to making a false statement on a bank loan application. The plea deal had nothing to do with his work on Capitol Hill, but federal prosecutors included an unusual passage that debunked several conspiracy theories about Awan's work. Prosecutors said they found no evidence Awan "engaged in unauthorized or illegal conduct involving House computers systems."

The U.S. attorney's office that shot down these theories is led by Jessie Liu, a Trump nominee.

"Trump: 'What happened to Hillary Clinton's emails? Thirty-three thousand emails gone, just gone. I think in Russia they wouldn't be gone so easily. I think it's a disgrace that we can't get Hillary Clinton's 33,000 emails.' "

There's no evidence Clinton deleted these 33,000 emails in anticipation of receiving a subpoena, and Comey has said the FBI's investigation found no evidence that any work-related emails were "intentionally deleted in an effort to conceal them." Clinton's staff had requested that these emails be deleted months before they received a subpoena, according to the FBI's July 2016 statement.

The FBI concluded that Clinton was "extremely careless" in her handling of classified information but that she did not intend to violate any laws. "In looking back at our investigations into mishandling or removal of classified information, we cannot find a case that would support bringing criminal charges on these facts," Comey said in July 2016.

"Putin: 'I did hear these rumors that we allegedly collected compromising material on Mr. Trump when he was visiting Moscow. Well, distinguished colleague, let me tell you this: When President Donald Trump was at Moscow back then, I didn't even know that he was in Moscow. I treat President Donald Trump with utmost respect, but back then when he was a private individual, a businessman, nobody informed me that he was in M'oscow.'

"Trump: 'It would have been out long ago.' "

This is most probably a reference to the "Steele dossier," which included several scandalous and unsubstantiated allegations linking Trump to bribery and prostitutes in Russia. Putin was asked in Helsinki whether he had any compromising material involving Trump. He didn't specifically deny it: Putin said he "didn't even know" Trump was in Moscow in 2013.

"However, Russian government officials -- including Putin's top spokesman -- knew Trump was in Moscow in November 2013 to host the Miss Universe pageant and were told about the real estate developer's eagerness to meet with Putin while he was there, according to people familiar with the conversations who have recounted them to congressional investigators," The Washington Post's Rosalind S. Helderman reported.

"Russia is known to collect information on foreign government officials and business leaders through surveillance at hotels and other locations," according to The Post. Trump sought a meeting with Putin in 2013, only to be told the Russian president was too busy receiving the Dutch king, Helderman reported.

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