The life and death of Trump’s ‘cyber security unit’ plan with Putin
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Donald Trump’s plan to work with Russia’s Vladimir Putin on cybersecurity died an unceremonious death, ending in under 140 characters roughly 12 hours after the US President last defended it.
The abrupt move signaled once again that Trump has no qualms about changing his mind when a policy position brings the White House critical coverage, and in the process undermining some of his top staff and Cabinet members.
Trump’s top aides — including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin — touted an agreement to cooperate with Russia on cybersecurity as one of the key wins that came out of Trump’s meeting with Putin on the sidelines of the G20 in Hamburg, Germany. Speaking with reporters after the meeting, Tillerson, Mnuchin and others hyped the agreement as a step forward for US-Russia relations.
Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders downplayed the formerly touted plan by saying it was a discussion without “formal structure in place” for the cooperation.
“This was part of a discussion in that meeting, and look, we recognize that Russia is a cyber threat but we also recognize the need to have conversations with our adversaries,” Sanders said, adding that she didn’t ask Trump whether he trusts Putin.
But many, including Republicans, didn’t see it that way — South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham called it “pretty close” to the “dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.”
“Partnering with Putin,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted in response to Trump, “on a ‘Cyber Security Unit’ is akin to partnering with Assad on a “Chemical Weapons Unit.”
The concerns were clear to these Republicans: Working with Russia to protect cybersecurity would likely mean having intelligence officers who blamed Russia for 2016 election meddling in an unclassified report work directly with the Russians to stop any future meddling.
As pressure mounted, Trump responded. A mere 12 hours after the President himself touted the initiative on Twitter, Trump pulled the plug on the ill-fated agreement.
“The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn’t mean I think it can happen,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Sunday night. “It can’t-but a ceasefire can,& did!”
The tweet directly contradicted what Tillerson, Mnuchin — and even Trump himself — said earlier.
“Putin & I discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded and safe,” Trump wrote early on Sunday.
Billed as a win
Trump’s aides championed the proposal after the high-stakes Trump-Putin meeting.
“The two leaders also acknowledged the challenges of cyberthreats and interference in the democratic processes of the United States and other countries, and agreed to explore creating a framework around which the two countries can work together to better understand how to deal with these cyber threats,” Tillerson said during a briefing with reporters after the confab, adding the group will look into “who to hold accountable” for cyberintrusion.
And Mnuchin, during an interview with ABC on Sunday, said the group would focus on “having capabilities to make sure that we both fight cyber together.”
“I think this is a very important step forward that what we want to make sure is that we coordinate with Russia, that we’re focused on cybersecurity together, that we make sure that they never interfere in any democratic elections or conduct any cybersecurity,” Mnuchin said.
The short life of Trump’s cybersecurity partnership with Putin is the latest example of the President undercutting his top aides to stem negative press.
After reports surfaced in May that Trump shared classified information with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in the Oval Office, deputy national security adviser Dina Powell said the story was “false.”
Hours later, though, Trump tweeted tacit confirmation of the report.
“As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety,” he wrote. “Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”
Earlier this year, too, Trump countered the explanation his aides offered for why he decided to fire FBI Director James Comey.
After aides initially argued that Comey was fired for his handling of Hillary Clinton’s email issue during the 2016 election and a recommendation memo written by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Trump told NBC News that he considered the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign’s connections to Russian meddling when he decided to fire the former FBI director.
“I was going to fire regardless of recommendation,” Trump said in the interview, adding later, “When I decided to (dismiss Comey), I said to myself, I said you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story.”