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Witcover: Indictments of Russian operatives cast shadow on Trump-Putin summit

President Trump says he will ask Vladimir Putin about meddling in the elections in the United States, but can only just insist he 'don't do it again.'

The Justice Department's disclosure that a dozen Russian military intelligence officers were indicted by a grand jury for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election has elevated the Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki to crisis proportions.

President Donald Trump, who previously insisted he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin when he said there was no Russian involvement, immediately clung to that view despite the indictments last week from special counsel Robert Mueller.

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At the same time, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, overseeing the Mueller investigation, said there was as yet no evidence in the materials released of involvement by the Trump campaign.

President Trump made comments regarding his upcoming meeting with NATO has he left D.C. for Europe.

Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, a member of a House committee investigating the matter, immediately called on Mr. Trump to pull out of the Helsinki meeting in the face of the Justice Department's indictment. So did Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer of New York.

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But Mr. Trump dug in, repeating his allegation that the whole investigation was "a rigged witch hunt" and that the indictments were vindication of him and his campaign.

Notably, the president was advised of the coming indictments in advance but proceeded with plans for the Putin meeting anyhow. Earlier he had sought it with boasts it would be the easiest for him after a week of other foreign meetings in Europe.

The timing of the Justice Department's indictments immediately shoved aside interest in Mr. Trump's earlier stops at a NATO meeting in Brussels and a visit to British Prime Minister Theresa May in England, before a weekend visit to one of his golf courses in Scotland and his Monday meeting in Helsinki with Mr. Putin, whom the president has been resolutely romancing and praising as a "fine" if overtly authoritarian leader that he himself aspires to be.

While the report on the latest indictments noted that lack of evidence of Trump collusion in the meddling, Justice officials also noted that the Mueller investigation was continuing. That fact suggests that one avenue of exploration will be determining whether there were identifiable Americans on the receiving end of hacking efforts with any connection to the Trump campaign.

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A couple kisses in front of graffiti depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, on the walls of a bar in the old town in Vilnius, Lithuania, Saturday, May 14, 2016.
A couple kisses in front of graffiti depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, on the walls of a bar in the old town in Vilnius, Lithuania, Saturday, May 14, 2016. (Mindaugas Kulbis / Associated Press)

There is no expectation that any of the 12 Russian military intelligence officers listed in the indictment can or will be extradited to the United States for trial. But the Mueller investigation goes on, with the likely quest for any Americans who might have been involved in the hacks as subjects or collaborators.

Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen of Tenneessee, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, noted that the Mueller indictments named special Russian intelligence officers involved in the hacking of Americans, including members of the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Hillary Clinton campaign and various state elections officials. It proved "Russia is not a competitor" as Mr. Trump said, but that "Russia is a foe," he said.

President Trump's various claims about NATO proved questionable, at best, but the final one - that the alliance is stronger than ever - is awfully hard to believe.

The case of Russian meddling that has haunted Mr. Trump through the first year and more of his presidency, dismissed by him so far, is front and center again. His tussles with NATO allies have now been reduced to sideshows to a major Trump-Putin showdown on the American elections meddling in our democratic process, past and future.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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