Donald Trump appeared on Sunday to back away from a proposed cyber security unit that he had discussed forming with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin.
The president had described a new era of co-operation with Russia as he returned from Europe on Sunday, outlining plans for a joint cyber-security unit to protect against election hacking.
In his first public comments on his meeting mr Putin at last week’s G20 summit in Hamburg, Mr Trump said he “strongly pressed” the Russian president on allegations of Kremlin meddling in the US election, but that it was now “time to move forward in working constructively with Russia.”
“Putin & I discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded… and safe,” Mr Trump wrote on Twitter.
Hours later, however, he seemed to say the plan can’t happen.
“The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn’t mean I think it can happen. It can’t-but a ceasefire can,& did!,” he said, referring to a truce that the leaders had brokered for southern Syria.
The apparent U-turn came after critics expressed disbelief at the idea of working with the country accused of orchestrating last year’s cyber attacks in an effort to swing the outcome of the presidential vote.
Ash Carter, former Defence Secretary, said it harked straight back to the days of the Soviet Union. “When confronted with something they’ve done wrong, ask for US intelligence – old trick; propose a working group – in this case on cyber,” he told CNN.
“But this is like the guy who robbed your house proposing a working group on burglary: It’s they who did this.” However, Mr Trump delivered his verdict in customary, bombastic style after returning home from Hamburg where he met world leaders – using a slew of Twitter messages to declare victory and pour scorn on fake news and his political opponents.
“The G20 summit was a great success for the US. Explained that the US must fix the many bad trade deals it has made,” he wrote. It marks a now familiar style of Trumpian politics in which America’s president bypasses traditional media by offering his own analysis direct to his public.
Mr Trump’s trip to Europe garnered mixed reviews at home. While some lauded a presidential vision of Western values delivered during a speech in Warsaw, others said the G20 demonstrated a growing gulf between an isolationist America and the rest of the world on matters of trade and climate change.
The biggest moment of Mr Trump’s second foreign trip was his meeting with Mr Putin, which came amid continuing speculation about whether the American president’s campaign colluded with Russia in efforts to swing last year’s election.
Then on Saturday Mr Trump’s oldest son said that he, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort met with a Russian lawyer last year.
In his Twitter messages, Mr Trump insisted he had twice pressed his counterpart on the Kremlin’s role in election meddling and that Mr Putin had denied any involvement. Mr Trump has frequently said he believes that Russia probably hacked the emails of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton staffers during last year’s election, but that other countries were probably involved as well.
Marco Rubio, who lost out on the Republican nomination to Mr Trump last year, was among those who voiced concerns about working with Mr Putin. “While reality and pragmatism requires that we engage Vladimir Putin, he will never be a trusted ally or a reliable constructive partner,” he said.
“Partnering with Putin on a ‘Cyber Security Unit’ is akin to partnering with Assad on a ‘Chemical Weapons Unit’.”
The move was even predicted last month by a former senior CIA official. Steve Hall, who was head of CIA Russian operations before he retired, suggested Russia would propose a joint initiative before withdrawing at the first sign of disagreement over Ukraine or Syria, for example, before exploiting confidential information.