Donald Trump sat down with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the side of the G-20 summit in Japan a few hours ago, and as the two briefly addressed reporters, the American president reveled in the attention. "It's like the Academy Awards," Trump said to his Russian counterpart.
There was, however, one exchange of particular interest.
As reporters shouted questions and cameras clicked, Trump cocked his head when asked by NBC News whether he would tell Putin not to interfere in the vote next year."The answer to the question is, of course I will. 'Don't meddle in the election,'" Trump said. As Putin smiled broadly, Trump briefly raised his finger toward Putin before turning away and repeating: "Don't meddle in the election."Over the din in the meeting room, it was unclear whether Trump had initially said "Don't meddle in the election, please," or "Don't meddle in the election, president." Journalists in the room and watching video of the exchange heard him say "please," but a White House transcript later maintained that Trump had said "president."
The official White House transcript is online here.
This is an instance in which the way Trump spoke matters at least as much as what he said. If you watch the clip, you'll hear NBC News' Freddie Tunnard ask, "Mr. President, will you tell Russia not to meddle in the 2020 election?"
"Yes, of course, I will," the Republican replied lightheartedly. Turning his head a bit, he added, "Don't meddle in the election."
Trump smiled as if this were amusing -- and so did Putin.
Three years removed from a sophisticated military-intelligence operation that targeted American elections, the beneficiary of the most serious election attack in our nation's history finds this a subject worth joking about.
Last month, Robert Mueller delivered public remarks in which he said, "[T]here were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election -- and that allegation deserves the attention of every American." Four weeks later, Trump seems to find this funny, while sitting alongside the Russian president responsible for the attack.
FBI Director Chris Wray recently spoke to the Council on Foreign Relations and reiterated ongoing concerns about Russian efforts to interfere in American elections. Indeed, the bureau's director described the issue as a "significant counterintelligence threat," adding that the 2018 election cycle was "just kind of a dress rehearsal for the big show in 2020."
So why is Trump making light of the threat? Does it have anything to do with his recent assertions that he would welcome foreign election interference as part of his re-election campaign?
Incidentally, this wasn't the only subject about which the two presidents shared a laugh. Referring to journalists, Trump added, "'Fake news' is a great term, isn't it. You don't have this problem in Russia but we do."
Putin, of course, has faced multiple accusations of ordering the murder of journalists -- a subject Trump has dismissed the importance of in recent years.