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Week In Politics: 12 Russian Cyberspies Charged With Attack On 2016 Election


All right, we're now going to talk more about these indictments and President Trump's latest turn on the world stage in our weekly politics segment. I'm joined now by E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Ben Domenech, publisher of The Federalist. Thanks for coming in, guys.

BEN DOMENECH: Good to be with you.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Happy Friday the 13th.

CHANG: (Laughter) So just this morning, President Trump was calling the Mueller investigation a witch hunt.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I call it the rigged witch hunt. I think that really hurts our country, and it really hurts our relationship with Russia.

CHANG: I want to start with you, Ben. Why announce the indictment of these Russian agents today? I mean, the president, as we're talking about, is just three days away from sitting down with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. Is the timing of this indictment a mere coincidence, you think?

DOMENECH: I really don't think there is a coincidence here. I think that the timing of this is clearly purposeful and is something that is going to factor into the way that this meeting is judged one way or the other. The fact is that much of the information that was enclosed within this indictment is stuff that has been known for quite some time by those of us who've been paying attention to it.

In a sense, the fact that this indictment deals with 12 people who are never going to see the inside of an American courtroom, too, factors into the idea that this is about making a particular point on the eve of this meeting as opposed to something that would have a tangible result.

CHANG: What do you think, E.J. - the timing was deliberate?

DIONNE: Well, I don't know who did what deliberately, but I would say the timing is exquisite...

CHANG: (Laughter).

DIONNE: ...Because it really puts the president on the line. I mean, it's - think about what you just played on the air. It really hurts our relationship with Russia. That really shows where Trump's priorities are. He doesn't want to push back against this. He wants a good relationship with Vladimir Putin. This puts people who call it a witch hunt in a terrible position. It makes those - that hearing yesterday with Peter Strzok - it makes the House Republicans I think look very bad. They...

CHANG: Peter Strzok being the agent at the center - all these allegations of FBI bias against President Trump.

DIONNE: Right. And this suggests, no, this is a very serious investigation. And I can imagine some late night comedian tonight asking if Trump and Putin will put out a joint statement declaring that this is a witch hunt. But the fact that I can say that suggests I think the kind of trouble this creates for people who have been trying to create the witch hunt narrative because nothing here rules out that there will be more. And in fact there were little indications in here that there indeed will be more linking...

CHANG: Let...


CHANG: Let me...

DIONNE: ...Some of this to the Trump campaign.

DOMENECH: E.J., you're still talking about an indictment in which so much of it is taken up by the numbers of times people were posting memes on the Internet. I mean, this is not something that indicates the level of success that would be necessary for tilting an election at all. And I think that given that, you know, the timing of this is obviously going to factor into the relationship that we have with Putin.

But under the Obama administration, we saw the Russians annex Crimea, invade Ukraine, intervene in Syria and effectively do all of the things that are talked about in this indictment. The idea that this is an administration that is letting - that wants to have a good relationship with Russia is I think one that is clearly true, but what that relationship entails I think - you know, you have to give credence to what's come before.

CHANG: Let me jump in.

DIONNE: Just very quickly...

CHANG: On the issue of Russian...

DIONNE: ...Could I...


DIONNE: Could I...

CHANG: Quickly.

DIONNE: I just want to say something very quickly.


DIONNE: We could argue all day about how much influence the Russians actually had on the election. I think it was significant in affecting the narrative of the campaign, which helped affect the outcome. But the one thing that I think is important is that we not take this indictment and say this is in any way the end of things because there are clues throughout this indictment that there were people in the United States and at least one go-between with the Trump campaign who was involved in some way in this. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, we'll find out.

CHANG: All right, President Trump often seems to be looking for leverage in these meetings, and I just want to ask you, Ben, who has the upper hand going into this meeting with Vladimir Putin next Monday? Is it Putin or Trump?

DOMENECH: Well, I think it's clear that Vladimir Putin and Trump have had a relationship that has been affected by the course of this investigation since it began.

CHANG: Do these indictments change the leverage?

DOMENECH: I don't think that they necessarily change the leverage. But, you know, there are a lot of different things to talk about as it relates to Russia. I think that the real focus and the real effort on the part of the Russians is that they want to see the various oligarchs' that have been close to Putin who have been cracked down on under this administration response to this. They want to see that lifted. They also want to essentially push back against a number of different priorities that the Americans have. And coming out of this NATO meeting, I don't think that the president is positioned that well.

CHANG: Coming out of NATO meeting - I mean, President Trump spent much of his European tour criticizing leaders of our western European allies. E.J., how much did that friction play into Putin's hands, do you think?

DIONNE: I think it all played into Putin's hands.

CHANG: How so?

DIONNE: I mean, if you think about what are Putin's central objectives, all of his objectives are linked to undermining the western alliance, to weakening opposition to him in western Europe, to having a weaker NATO or no NATO so that he has a freer hand in a place like the Baltics, who are very worried about the - what President Trump did in Europe and about his dissing all of our allies so that - I mean, Trump - it's very hard to explain Trump's behavior outside the context of this - these allegations unless he is either just randomly causing trouble, which I suppose you could see his doing, or he regards any small-D democratic leader as really a large-D Democratic leader and reacts against them almost instinctively.

CHANG: Ben, I'm going to give you the very last quick word on this. You know, we see President Trump claim success after the summit with North Korea, after the NATO summit. Do you think President Trump has accrued a record of success on the global stage, very quickly?

DOMENECH: I think it's way too early to judge that question. He's very big, though, on spiking the football at the earliest opportunity.

CHANG: All Right, that's E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post...

DIONNE: At the 20-yard line (laughter).

CHANG: ...And Ben Domenech of The Federalists. Thanks to both of you guys.

DIONNE: Thank you.

DOMENECH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.