ELLESBOROUGH, England — The Friday indictment of a dozen Russian nationals for hacking into the Democratic National Committee landed days before President Donald Trump is set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, adding a stunning new dimension to a meeting already fraught with tension.
Hours before Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the charges, Trump vowed to ask Putin “firmly” about Moscow’s involvement in the last presidential election, but he warned that the “stupidity” of domestic politics and the special counsel's ongoing probe into the issue was holding back U.S.-Russian relations.
Trump will hold his first summit with Putin in Helsinki on Monday after meeting with NATO allies. Speaking at a press conference alongside British Prime Minister Theresa May earlier Friday, Trump said he did not expect any major breakthroughs on the issue and would instead focus on building a relationship with the Russian leader.
“I will absolutely bring that up,” Trump said of Russian meddling. “I don’t think you’ll have any ‘Gee, I did it, I did it. You got me!’ There won’t be Perry Mason here, I don’t think. But I will absolutely, firmly ask the question.”
Hours later, Rosenstein unveiled the indictments of 12 Russians, all Russian intelligence officers, that special counsel Robert Mueller alleged "engaged in a sustained effort to hack into the computer networks of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the DNC and the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton."
Rosenstein said he had briefed Trump about the allegations earlier this week and said the timing of the announcement was a coincidence.
Throughout his European tour, Trump has suggested he would like to build a better relationship with Putin. Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Trump described Putin as a "competitor," not an enemy or a friend.
"Not a question of friend or enemy. He’s not my enemy. And hopefully, someday, maybe he’ll be a friend. It could happen,” Trump said.
Democrats on Capitol Hill said the indictments underscored the need for Trump to press Putin on the issue. Several, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called on Trump to cancel the meeting altogether.
“These indictments are further proof of what everyone but the president seems to understand: President Putin is an adversary who interfered in our elections to help President Trump win," Schumer said.
Trump, who shook NATO allies earlier in the week by demanding they increase defense spending, while criticizing the leaders of Germany and the United Kingdom, said he also planned to use the meeting with Putin to discuss Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, its support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and nuclear proliferation.
Trump demurred on a question of whether the U.S. and Russia could realistically build a stronger alliance given Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine. He answered by blaming former President Barack Obama for not doing enough at the time to respond to the crisis.
“This was an Obama disaster,” Trump said. “I think if I were president then, he would not have taken over Crimea."
Democrats railed against Trump’s European tour, and said they were wary of the upcoming, one-on-one meeting with Putin.
“He gives the back of the hand to our closest allies and embraces people like Putin,” New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN.
The president also blamed the special counsel’s probe into Russian meddling for harming U.S.-Russian relations. He referenced a day-long hearing on Capitol Hill Thursday in which Republicans grilled FBI agent Peter Strzok for anti-Trump text messages he sent while leading earlier probes of the campaign.
The Department of Justice inspector general rebuked the text messages in report last month, calling them “antithetical to the core values of the FBI.” But investigators said they did not find evidence Strzok’s personal beliefs had influenced the investigation.
Trump pointed to the texts to label the ongoing investigation a “rigged witch hunt,” and said the probe “really hurts our country and it really hurts our relationship with Russia.”
Despite a tumultuous NATO meeting, Trump said the 29 member states reached consensus in touting what he described as commitments by those other countries to increase their defense spending.
Trump has not said specifically what commitments he secured. Several European leaders said after the meeting that they agreed only to continue to make progress toward spending goals set in 2014.
Trump has said ally contributions to NATO have increased by $33 billion since last year.
“We have left NATO with more money, with more unity, with more spirit than NATO has probably ever had,” Trump said. “We have been far tougher on Russia than anybody. We have been extremely tough on Russia.”
As Trump walked away from the press conference in Chequers, the prime minister's country retreat, CNN reporter Jim Acosta asked him, “Will you ask Putin to stay out of U.S. elections?”
Trump looked over his shoulder and said, “Yes.”