Governance & Risk Management

Trump Backtracks Over 'Impenetrable Cybersecurity Unit'

At G-20 Summit, US President Broached Joint Cybersecurity Group With Russia
Trump Backtracks Over 'Impenetrable Cybersecurity Unit'
President Donald Trump at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. (Photo: Shealah Craighead, White House)

President Donald Trump backtracked on a pledge that the United States and Russia would work together to improve global cybersecurity by forming a joint "cyber unit."

See Also: User Entity & Behavior Analytics 101: Strategies to Detect Unusual Security Behaviors

Following Trump's trip to Europe, where he participated in the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, he tweeted on Saturday that he had reached a cybersecurity understanding with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"Putin & I discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking & many other negative things, will be guarded," Trump said in a Sunday morning tweet.

But Trump's suggestion that the United States and Russia would form a joint working group on cybersecurity quickly provoked a barrage of criticism from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers. "It's not the dumbest idea I have ever heard but it's pretty close," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, told NBC's "Meet the Press" program.

"I don't think we can expect the Russians to be any kind of a credible partner in some cybersecurity unit," the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, told CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday. "I think that would be dangerously naive for this country. If that's our best election defense, we might as well just mail our ballot boxes to Moscow."

Just hours later, Trump backtracked, saying he didn't think the joint cybersecurity unit would ever happen.

"The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn't mean I think it can happen. It can't," Trump said on Twitter.

Instead, Trump highlighted a ceasefire he had negotiated with Russia in southwest Syria, near the border with Jordan.

Russia has continued to deny reports that it attempted to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Trump, meanwhile, has dismissed suggestions that his campaign colluded with Russia.

Trump Meets With Putin

The G-20 summit in Hamburg was marred by street violence and reported awkwardness between leaders, and it resulted in only 19 of the attendees agreeing on the final, joint declaration, known as the communiqué. The holdout was Donald Trump, who could not agree with the others on climate change.

The summit was also the site of Trump's first face-to-face meeting, since he became president, with Putin. The pair skipped a major G-20 meeting on climate change taking place at the same time on Friday. Standing in for Trump at that meeting was his daughter, Ivanka, who is officially an unpaid adviser to the White House.

Trump and Putin were joined by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and two translators, and journalists were allowed to witness only the opening moments. The meeting, which was scheduled to last 30 minutes but instead lasted two hours and 15 minutes, was immediate political theater.

Speaking later on Friday, Tillerson said Trump and Putin "connected very quickly," and enjoyed "a very clear, positive chemistry."

Putin Denies Hacking

Putin offered a similar assessment, speaking at a news conference following the G-20 summit. He also continued his longstanding denial that Russia had attempted to meddle in U.S. affairs.

"Our position is well-known," Putin said. "There is no basis to believe that Russia interfered in the electoral process of the United States."

Trump started his meeting with Putin by pressing the Russian president on his country's 2016 U.S. presidential election interference, Tillerson said.

"They had a very robust and lengthy exchange on the subject," Tillerson said. "The President pressed President Putin on more than one occasion regarding Russian involvement. President Putin denied such involvement, as I think he has in the past."

White House Seeks Way Forward

Tillerson suggested that Russia would be held to account over its future actions. "I think the relationship ... it's too important to not find a way to move forward - not dismissing the issue in any way, and I don't want to leave you with that impression," he said. "And that is why we've agreed to continue engagement and discussion around how do we secure a commitment that the Russian government has no intention of and will not interfere in our affairs in the future, nor the affairs of others, and how do we create a framework in which we have some capability to judge what is happening in the cyber world and who to hold accountable."

Washington and Moscow will form a working group designed "to explore creating a framework around which the two countries can work together to better understand how to deal with these cyber threats ... and this issue of non-interference," Tillerson said.

Offering his assessment of the meeting, Russia's Lavrov said in a televised news conference that Trump accepted Putin's "clear statements" that "Russian leadership hadn't interfered" in the U.S. elections, ABC News reported.

Lavrov also said Trump claimed that while Russian interference had been "mentioned in several U.S. circles" but "the [U.S.] can't prove it."

Focus: Putin's Denial

Following his meeting with Putin, Trump appeared to dismiss the U.S. intelligence community's assessment that Putin had authorized Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

"I strongly pressed President Putin twice about Russian meddling in our election. He vehemently denied it. I've already given my opinion....." Trump said in a Sunday morning tweet.

Trump's previous efforts to retire the question of Russia's U.S. presidential meddling have been hampered by investigations centering on whether members of his campaign colluded with Russia.

Meanwhile, Trump's latest pronouncement on the matter drew scorn from legal and intelligence experts. "When pursuing a corrupt politician, mobster or murderer on strong FBI evidence, if he 'vehemently denied it,' we just dropped it usually," said Preet Bharara, who served as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York from 2009 until he was fired by Trump in March, together with 46 other U.S. attorneys.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, slammed Trump for apparently giving equal weight to Putin's denials and the U.S. intelligence establishment's finding that Moscow meddled in U.S. affairs.

Price to Pay?

Last month, Bloomberg News reported that 39 states were targeted as part of Russian's information warfare campaign (see Election Systems' Hacks Far Greater Than First Realized).

Also last month, former FBI Director James Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Russia had targeted hundreds - if not thousands - of U.S. organizations.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating the Russian efforts, as well as any potential ties they might have to the campaign of Donald Trump. Congressional committees - including the intelligence panels in both the House of Representatives and Senate - are conducting their own inquiries.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Sunday that despite "really sophisticated attempts" to change the 2016 presidential election result, Russia had "not paid a single price for that."

"There has been no penalty," McCain told CBS's "Face the Nation." "Yes, it's time to move forward. But there has to be a price to pay."

About the Author

Mathew J. Schwartz

Mathew J. Schwartz

Executive Editor, DataBreachToday & Europe, ISMG

Schwartz is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience in magazines, newspapers and electronic media. He has covered the information security and privacy sector throughout his career. Before joining Information Security Media Group in 2014, where he now serves as the executive editor, DataBreachToday and for European news coverage, Schwartz was the information security beat reporter for InformationWeek and a frequent contributor to DarkReading, among other publications. He lives in Scotland.

Around the Network

Our website uses cookies. Cookies enable us to provide the best experience possible and help us understand how visitors use our website. By browsing, you agree to our use of cookies.