President Trump’s meeting today with Russian President Vladimir Putin is a pivotal moment for his administration’s efforts to deter future election interference efforts by Moscow and other sophisticated actors. Trump entered his meeting with Putin in Helsinki armed with the sweeping indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers in connection with the hack on the Democratic Party in 2016, which drew the clearest connection to date between the election cyberattacks and the Kremlin. The intelligence community’s attribution of the attack to Russia — and now, the indictments of specific individuals involved — can be powerful parts of a country’s deterrence strategy. But experts say they could be far less effective if the president doesn’t back up their conclusions. “Trump’s reluctance to admit that the Russians did wrong tends to put a top limit on the kind of retaliation that Russia can expect from a repeat of 2016,” said Martin Libicki, chair of cybersecurity studies at the U.S. Naval Academy. Anything less than a strong demand that Putin back off will likely dull the effects of not just the “naming and shaming” approach the intelligence community has taken but also sanctions, indictments and other punitive measures the administration and Congress have levied.
“The Russians believe that they have carte blanche to do something similar if it helps Trump, and Trump’s failure to mention the hack, more than nominally, would not signal anything differently,” Libicki said. “Exposure by the [intelligence community], indictments, sanctions, and diplomatic reprisals emanate from the administration despite what Trump appears to want. But there are limits to what the bureaucracy would do on its own.”
Indeed, while Trump has said he will raise election interference when he sits down privately with Putin, he has already seemed to dampen expectations that there’d be any breakthroughs. In early-morning tweets Monday, Trump blasted the Justice Department’s investigation of election interference and said the United States, not Russia, was to blame for tensions between the two countries.