ROBERT COSTA: Bombshell indictment. The Justice Department charges 12 Russian military officers with election interference. I’m Robert Costa, inside the latest turns in the Mueller probe and President Trump’s confrontational diplomacy, tonight on Washington Week.
DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL ROD ROSENSTEIN: (From video.) The indictment charges 12 Russian military officers by name for conspiring to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.
MR. COSTA: The Justice Department has charge 12 Russian military intelligence officers with hacking into Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and the Democratic National Committee. The announcement directly links the Kremlin with election interference that went beyond just targeting Democrats.
MR. ROSENSTEIN: (From video.) In a second, related conspiracy, Russian GRU officers hacked the website of a state election board and stole information about 500,000 voters.
MR. COSTA: We have the latest on the expanding Muller probe. Plus, President Trump sparks unease overseas when he criticizes British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plan, and warns that her position could put future trade deals in jeopardy.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Well, if they do a deal like that, it will most likely – because we’ll be dealing with the European Union instead of dealing with the U.K. So it will probably kill the deal.
MR. COSTA: May remained calm and carried on.
BRITISH PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: (From video.) The U.K.-U.S. relationship is also defined by the role we play on the world stage. From the outset, President Trump has been clear about how he sees the challenges we face. And on many, we agree.
MR. COSTA: And after rattling allies at NATO, President Trump takes a victory lap on military spending.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) Tremendous progress has been made. Everyone’s agreed to substantially up their commitment.
MR. COSTA: But the French president debunked Mr. Trump’s assertion, saying there was no new agreement.
We discuss it all next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference has had long stretches of quiet. And then, there are days of sudden action. Today was one of those days. Based on Mueller’s work, the Department of Justice charged 12 senior Russian intelligence officers with hacking Democratic officials during the 2016 campaign. The federal indictment sheds new light on the Kremlin’s sophisticated scheme to manipulate the last election.
Joining me now with his latest reporting is Devlin Barrett, who has been busy today at The Washington Post newsroom. Devlin, the president has long doubted whether Russia hacked Democratic groups. Does today’s indictment put those doubts to rest?
DEVLIN BARRETT: I think it puts doubts to rest that the Russians engaged in this hacking, definitely. I also think it should put to rest a lot of conspiracy theories that have been tossed up to try to argue that Russia didn’t engage in this hacking. But, look, an indictment isn’t proof. Folks can still argue about this. But there is an incredible detailed indictment now to explain not just which Russians did it, and when they did it, but also exactly how they did it. And that’s pretty powerful.
MR. COSTA: And what did we learn about how they did it? When you read this indictment you hear about digital currency like bitcoin. You hear about social media. What did you learn?
MR. BARRETT: Well, I think I learned that they were really deep, deep inside not just the computer servers and systems at the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and a lot of the email accounts of individual staffers – not just for Hillary Clinton but for those organizations. But they had control and access to dozens of computers within those committees. And it’s remarkable the breadth of the thing, frankly. And that’s what I think comes across in reading this indictment today, is that this was a very sophisticated, very well-executed plan to hack a lot of computers.
MR. COSTA: One of the people who interacted with these Russians or these Russian-affiliated entities was Roger Stone, the long-time Trump advisor. What does this indictment mean for him?
MR. BARRETT: Well, you know, I think it may actually be an OK thing for him so far. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said today that we should not assume anything implicating or inference of guilt for any of the Americans who are referenced in this – in this indictment. And I think – but what it does show, frankly, is that the Russians were reaching out, that they were offering help, that they had a real willingness to ask, frankly, people around President Trump, you know, can we help you? Is there something we can do for you?
MR. COSTA: Devlin, when you think about the Mueller investigation, it has two tracks. There’s the Russian track, looking at interference in the election. Then there’s the obstruction of justice track of this investigation. What does today, the timing of it all, say about Mueller’s progress?
MR. BARRETT: Well, I think it says something that we’ve sort of long suspected, which is that the U.S. government, the intelligence community, has had a very good idea for quite some time exactly how this hacking was done. I think Mueller’s indictment, frankly, lays it out in a lot of detail. We still have an unanswered question, though, of, OK, so this is how the Russians did it. What, if anything, did the Americans do? That’s the still significant unanswered question that this indictment ultimately does not speak to. And then when it comes to collusion, that is still an issue that he president’s lawyers are in talks with Mueller about. And I think, frankly, we haven’t seen the final act of that play.
MR. COSTA: The timing of this, Devlin, was really interesting to watch, because it came a day after Peter Strzok, the FBI agent, is grilled on Capitol Hill. And he had Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, under fire from Republicans, urge bipartisanship when it comes to recognizing Russian interference. As someone who studies and reports on the Department of Justice, what did you make of that message?
MR. BARRETT: Well, it’s frankly another instance where you’ve seen a day that’s been tough for the FBI and tough for the investigation is followed very closely, or near a day that, frankly, is a powerful new investigative – new investigative action. So, for example, I’m thinking particularly of last year when the first information about these FBI texts came out. It was really right essentially on the heels of the guilty plea of Michael Flynn, the former national security advisor. So these things can get bunched up. We’ve seen that before. And that’s what was striking to me about this week. It’s another bunching up of both – of big news events on both sides of the argument.
MR. COSTA: Devlin, when you think about what’s next, these 12 Russians are facing the charges, but will they actually ever face the charges? Can we expect them to be extradited?
MR. BARRETT: We really shouldn’t expect that. There’s always a chance that someone can get tricked into going to a country that had an extradition treaty. But Russia does not have an extradition treaty with the United States and is not going to turn any of these people over. These folks would have to do something fairly dumb to get in a position where they could be arrested. Having said that, this whole – this is a strategy that has existed for the U.S. government for a number of years called name and shame. You know, people argue about the effectiveness of that strategy, but obviously it has significant domestic value to our own country to explain what the government believes happened. So even if you never see any of these people in court, I know a lot of intelligence community officials would say there’s great value to just saying in a court document: This is what happened.
MR. COSTA: Devlin, it’s always great to have you on a day you’re writing the frontpage story. Thanks for joining us. I appreciate it.
MR .BARRETT: Thank you.
MR. COSTA: Well, while the deputy attorney general was at that lectern, President Trump was in the United Kingdom having tea with Queen Elizabeth II, after meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May. Mr. Trump was greeted with pomp and protest during his visit. But it was that explosive interview with The Sun, a tabloid newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, that made headlines. In the on-the-record interview, the president criticized May’s approach to Brexit, the U.K.’s effort to leave the European Union. Here’s what he said.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I actually told Theresa May how to do it, but she didn’t agree. She didn’t listen to me.
TOM NEWTON DUNN: (From video.) What did you say?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) She didn’t listen. No, I told her how to do it. That will be up to her to say. But I told her how to do it. She wanted to go a different route.
MR. COSTA: In The Sun – in the Sun interview, he also praised May’s political rival, Boris Johnson, appearing to undermine May’s fragile position in Britain’s negotiations with the EU.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) Once the Brexit process is concluded, and perhaps the U.S. has left the EU – I don’t know what they’re going to do, but whatever you do is OK with me. That’s your decision.
MR. COSTA: Joining me tonight from Washington, Peter Baker of The New York Times, Kayla Tausche of CNBC, and Katty Kay from BBC’s World News America. Thanks so much for being with us tonight, all of you great reporters.
But let’s start with Katty. You think of the president there in the U.K. And he’s confronting the special relations, a long-standing relationship, but also rattling the relationship at the same time. What’s been the consequence for the prime minister?
KATTY KAY: Look, he couldn’t have waded into a more sensitive domestic political issue at a more sensitive time than he did today. President Trump was fiercely critical in that Sun interview of the way that Theresa May has handled the Brexit negotiations. And he also said that if she went ahead with the new plan that she’s just unveiled for Brexit, then America wouldn’t be able to sign a trade deal with the United Kingdom.
This isn’t just being rude to your host when you turn up to dinner. This has practical implications for the prime minister. There have been times during the course of this week, Robert, where we didn’t know if Theresa May was going to survive the night as prime minister, there was going to be some kind of leadership challenge to her. And it’s all around this issue of Brexit and trade deals. So for the president to further put her in a position where her leadership is in jeopardy, her government is in jeopardy, her Brexit plan is in jeopardy was really remarkable in the context of wading into another country’s domestic politics.
They then had this press conference, and he – which can really best be described as a kind of make-nice clean-up operation. But there are conservative members of Theresa May’s own parliament who looked at that Sun interview – and one in particular that I’m thinking of – who before the Sun interview had been in favor of the prime minister’s new Brexit plan, and after that Sun interview said: Look, if there’s not going to be a trade deal with the United States, then I’m not sure I can support this plan after all. So there are real consequences for Theresa May because of this.
MR. COSTA: So you’re talking about the political implications. But, Kayla, what are the economic implications facing the U.K. as they look at tariff wars with the United States and a complicated scene with the EU?
KAYLA TAUSCHE: Well, it’s going to be a long road for the U.K. And we knew that when the citizens of the U.K. voted for Brexit in the first place a couple of years ago. One thing that Donald Trump might not like about the current stance of Prime Minister May is that what this allows the country to do, not only will it maintain a free trade area between the U.K. and Europe, but also it would allow the U.K. to pursue other deals with countries like the U.S. But Prime Minister May won’t have the same type of leash to pursue the type of deal that President Trump would have wanted. And she can institute her own tariffs, just like President Trump has, under the current structure of what she is pursuing.
But interestingly, even though President Trump criticized the way that Prime Minister May was handling Brexit, criticized the way that Germany was dealing with Russia when he was at the NATO summit, and this pipeline with Russia, these two leaders are dealing with political current concerns that President Trump is intimately familiar with: How to protect jobs in their own country, get investment, cheap energy domestically. And those are things that he can probably appreciate from afar, even if on the ground he’s highly critical.
MR. COSTA: So, Peter, that brings up the question, why did President Trump take this approach in the U.K.? They’re laying out the red carpet, the queen is there, they’re reviewing the troops, they’re seeing castles. Yet, he feels compelled to rattle the whole situation.
PETER BAKER: Yeah, look, this – (laughs) – this is a disruptor, not a diplomat. He doesn’t go to Europe with the idea of smoothing things over. He goes over there to rattle things up. He likes to make a stink, to some extent. He likes to hit even our allies with their biggest vulnerabilities.
What’s the biggest vulnerability for Theresa May right now? Obviously, this Brexit situation. What’s the biggest vulnerability for Angela Merkel right now, who he saw and sort of took on a little earlier in the week at the NATO summit? Well, migration would be one. You know, he obviously hit her obviously on defense spending and her energy dependence on Russia as well.
This is not somebody who’s trying to smooth things over. This is somebody who likes to mix it up and enjoys the sort of chaos that it creates. However, he tends to do it like he did in Britain. He tends to do it sort of off stage. He does it with a newspaper in an interview and then claims that it’s fake news, even though there’s a tape of him saying it, rather than to her face at the press conference where he tries to in fact say how much he appreciates her and admires her leadership. That’s the ‒ that’s the Donald Trump style, one that we probably will not see when we go to Helsinki when it might be a little bit different.
MR. COSTA: Katty, the president also waded into the rise of nationalism on the continent in the U.K. by talking about how immigration is changing cultures, changing the culture of Europe. What to make of the president and his comment there in that Sun interview? Was he showing solidarity with that rise of nationalism? Is he reframing U.S. foreign policy?
MS. KAY: Well, we know from comments from his ambassador to Germany that they like the idea of promoting these more far-right nationalist, populist groups in the country. He made it absolutely clear, both in The Sun interview and actually in the press conference as well that he thinks that immigration has changed the culture of Europe in bad ways. That was one area where the two leaders, Prime Minister May and President Trump, were at stark differences in that press conference.
There were people in the U.K. who were hoping they might have a kind of Love Actually moment with Theresa May standing up to the American president and evoking, well, not David Beckham’s right foot, but perhaps Jordan Pickford’s left wrist. It didn’t happen, except on that one issue of immigration where the prime minister said, look, overall, immigration has been a good thing for our country, very different from Donald Trump.
There are a couple of areas where you can rely on Donald Trump to be consistent. In many ways he’s inconsistent, but he is consistent on not liking multilateral organizations, on not liking immigration and on feeling that America has had a rough time and a bad deal from its allies. So as European leaders try to kind of navigate how to deal with this president, how to get the best out of the relationship with the White House, those are things they know that they can rely on.
MR. COSTA: As the European leaders try to deal with this, Kayla, they’re looking at what happened at the NATO summit and they see the president trying to push up the threshold of military spending for those nations up to 4 percent from 2 percent. What did they make of his transactional approach to this alliance?
MS. TAUSCHE: Well, you saw this one quote appearing many places from a NATO official who said we thought it was going to be bad going in, and even though our expectations were low, it was worse coming out of it. So that was a pretty stunning remark, albeit not on the record from that official. So clearly, the countries and the allies of NATO were very much prepared for the president to come in and rip up the playbook at away games, as he has become very comfortable at doing.
You might remember, before this year, perhaps even before as recently as the G-7, the president would approach these events with all of the decorum that previous administrations would have and then he would wait until he got back to the United States to criticize the people that he had just met with. That’s no longer the case.
What he did at NATO, though, which is interesting ‒ and there might be some disagreement among leaders in the room about what exactly they committed to and under what timeframe ‒ but the one thing the president did was set a deadline. He said, if they’re ‒ if these countries by January do not meet this 2 percent deadline, he’s basically reserving the right to withdraw from NATO. We know he has disdain for any bylaws that came before him. And he’s basically preparing to potentially withdraw if he still doesn’t like it in a few months’ time.
MR. COSTA: Potentially withdraw.
Peter, wither NATO? I mean, this is an institution that is steeped in history, some shared ideology when it comes to foreign policy and approach to the West. If you have an American president taking this kind of approach, does it raise questions about the future of NATO? Can it exist in its current form?
MR. BAKER: Yeah. No, it was very striking. On the front page of your newspaper this week was the headline “Will NATO Survive Trump?” And that’s a headline you never would have imagined under any other president. For 70 years, this organization has been the bedrock of America’s relationship with the West, the bedrock of the European-American, you know, world order, in effect. And the idea that it’s somehow now up for question is extraordinary.
And, of course, during the campaign, he said he thought NATO was obsolete. He refused at first to recommit to the Article 5 of the charter, the Atlantic Charter, that says an attack on one is an attack on all. Then he twists around and says, no, no, but I like NATO, I’m all for NATO. So it’s really hard to see where he’s going with this.
But the very idea that we’re discussing it, I’ll tell you this, the one person who’s happy about that is Vladimir Putin. He’s going to see President Trump on Monday in Helsinki. For 20 years as prime minister and president of Russia, it’s been his goal to drive a wedge between America and its NATO allies. And here, whether he had anything to do with it or not, he’s seeing a great deal of success.
MR. COSTA: What do we expect from that meeting coming up on Monday, Katty, the president and the Russian president?
MS. KAY: Well, I think that the indictments today from Bob Mueller’s team have put an extra load of pressure on the president as he goes into that meeting. This now takes the Russia investigation right to the staff, effectively, the employees, people on the payroll of the Russian government, people in Vladimir Putin’s orbit. It’s hard to see how the ‒ President Trump has already said he’s going to raise that. He said that before the indictment. It’s hard to see now how he cannot raise it with, one would expect, with some force. But we don’t know because, potentially, there are only going to be translators in the room and no staff is with him, so whether we will even know exactly what comes out of that meeting.
He’s just leaving the United Kingdom where a British citizen has been killed by a nerve agent that Britain says was put on the U.K. soil by Russia as well. A lot of concern amongst European allies about exactly what’s going to come out of that meeting with Vladimir Putin. And now, extra political tension around it because of what has happened here in Washington today.
MR. COSTA: Kayla, are we seeing a new relationship between the Russian president and Europe as much as we’re seeing a new relationship between Putin and Trump? When you think about the president showering attention on the Russian energy relationship with Germany this week, why did he do that?
MS. TAUSCHE: Well, he really doesn’t like the idea that he feels the U.S. shouldering the majority of the burden for NATO at a time when, you know, the purpose of NATO is to protect Eastern Europe and Europe broadly against Russia. Meanwhile, Germany is taking action to connect itself even more intrinsically to Russia and rely even more on its energy. He sought to conflate those two issues and draw the direct link between those issues at that time.
It’s unclear exactly what Vladimir Putin’s relationship is with the leaders of Europe at this time. It’s always been contentious; it is still now. What’s less clear is the relationship between President Trump and Vladimir Putin. President Trump reiterated again today at the press conference in England that he barely knows President Putin, that they don’t really know each other at all. He said that they are competitors.
And then on the same token, the Kremlin seems to be owning the messaging, at least for today, about what this meeting is. The Kremlin said that the summit on Monday will be about strengthening U.S.-Russia ties. They’ll talk about election meddling, if there are any facts to even discuss, and that Russia considers the U.S. to be a partner, which is certainly something that Donald Trump the businessman would want to hear.
MR. COSTA: Peter, beyond the election meddling question, which is going to be so important to watch by both parties on Monday, what about answers on Syria, on Ukraine when these two meet? I mean, those issues have been festering for a long time.
MR. BAKER: Well, you’re right. There’s so many issues that in fact a normal American-Russian meeting right now would address. The Middle East is up for grabs, in effect. Ukraine is a frozen conflict. What about the poisoning of the Russian former spy in the U.K. and in fact the death of a woman who apparently was caught on this nerve agent by accident? That’s an important issue. Just a few months ago, the West was expelling Russian diplomats over this. So many issues at the heart of the Russian-American relationship.
You have the sense, though, that President Trump is not going in with any particular demands. He’s making demands of the allies about spending money in order to be safe. He’s not making demands of the adversary who is making Europe unsafe in the first place.
MR. COSTA: And when you think about Republicans, Katty, back in the U.S., you had Senator McCain today, Senator Sasse of Nebraska, two Republicans, saying the president better take a tough line when it comes to Putin on Monday. But there’s not a chorus of Republicans making that statement.
MS. KAY: No. I mean, the only chorus that we’ve really had from Republicans where they have stuck together in opposition to the president has been on the issue of free trade. It seems that the Republican Party still is very much the party of free traders. They came up with a resolution on that just this week.
But when it comes to Vladimir Putin, look at the way that opinion polls have shifted amongst Republicans in the country, led perhaps by, you know, President Trump’s example. Whereas Russia was seen as definitely an enemy of the United States just two or three years ago by the Republican Party and by the American voting public, those numbers are shifting and there’s more latitude now in favorability for having a good relationship with Vladimir Putin.
I think it’s really this question of, what is he going to ask of Vladimir Putin? And is he going to give something critical away? Are we going to see a promise, for example, to do something about U.S. sanctions because of the invasion and annexation of Crimea? That would be a huge coup for Vladimir Putin were Donald Trump to de facto recognize that Crimea is part of Russia now. And it’s something that no one else, I think, in Europe would be prepared to sign onto.
MR. COSTA: Well, Peter, what do we know about Putin’s agenda here?
MR. BAKER: Well, I think Putin’s agenda is to ‒ is to, first of all, just have the meeting. What the Russians believe is that there is in fact opposition to them inside the Trump administration. They don’t like people like Nikki Haley and others who have been pretty straightforward about criticizing Russia’s government. And they believe that these people around him have held Trump back, so they wanted to get past that outer layer that was separating these two presidents and get the two of them in a room together. Because they feel like that President Putin and President Trump can actually connect on a lot of these issues.
What he would want I think is what Katty said. He would want some de facto recognition that Crimea is always going to be Russia now, some sort of acknowledgement of Russia and its role in the world in a larger sense, that Russia is an important player and can’t be ostracized, can’t be isolated.
Remember, the whole purpose of these sanctions that have been put on in the last four years since the incursion into Ukraine was to isolate Russia from the world community, to say it didn’t belong at the table of the G-7, for instance, it didn’t belong in the community of civilized nations as long as it was poisoning people in other countries’ territory, as long as it was seizing the territory of its neighbors.
Well, having a meeting, a one-on-one meeting with the American president, especially one who says relatively friendly things and doesn’t really hold them to account, that’s a big win for Vladimir Putin.
MR. COSTA: All right. Peter, thank you very much for that.
And thanks so much to everyone for joining tonight, Kayla, Katty, Peter and Devlin. It was great conversation.
And on this Friday night, we have a special edition of the Washington Week Extra. I’ll be answering your questions on Facebook Live starting at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time. I hope you’ll join me. And I have some news to share.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us.