Trump-Putin summit mystery: What about Snowden?
As President Donald Trump prepares to meet Vladimir Putin on Monday, lawmakers from both parties want him to demand that the Russian president hand over 12 hackers newly indicted for sabotaging the 2016 election. That’s unlikely, especially since Trump mostly shrugs off talk of Russian election meddling.
But Putin is also harboring another hacker wanted by the U.S. — one whose guilt Trump has never questioned: Edward Snowden.
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As a candidate, Trump “guarantee[d]” he would bring home the infamous National Security Agency whistleblower. As president, however, he has shown no desire to confront Putin about Snowden.
Why not? Experts and former U.S. officials say that passions have cooled over the fugitive who rocked the intelligence community five years ago last month. More recent hacking scandals have overshadowed his actions. And Trump himself has become a harsh critic of U.S. surveillance programs, which he claims without evidence the Obama administration wrongly used against him.
Even so, some experts think handing over Snowden would be an easy way for Putin to do Trump a favor — giving the president a victory that would especially please intelligence and national security officials angry he hasn’t done more to counter Russian election meddling. Before Trump was sworn in in January 2017, former Deputy CIA Director Michael Morell wrote that handing over Snowden would be “the perfect inauguration gift” from Putin to Trump.
“If Trump wants this as a victory then I don’t see why Putin wouldn’t give it to him,” said Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago Law School professor who served on a foreign intelligence surveillance panel created by President Barack Obama shortly after Snowden’s leaks. “If Putin wants to either do a favor for Trump or make Trump look good, and if Trump wants this, it would be an easy thing for Putin to do,” Stone said.
“You can almost see the picture of Snowden in handcuffs being dragged into Air Force One,” he added.
Snowden sought refuge in Moscow in mid-2013 after publicly releasing troves of top-secret NSA files he stole while he was a private contractor. He has called himself a whistleblower exposing surveillance abuses, but many current and former U.S. officials consider him a traitor or worse.
Trump is among them: “Snowden is a spy who has caused great damage to the U.S. A spy in the old days, when our country was respected and strong, would be executed,” he declared on Twitter in April 2014.
As a 2016 candidate, Trump said he could get Snowden back from the Russians, who granted him political asylum. Promising to befriend Putin and repair U.S.-Russian relations, Trump insisted that the Russian leader — who he said had no respect for Obama — would “never” keep someone like Snowden if Trump were president.
“Look … if I’m president, Putin says [to Snowden], ‘Hey, boom, you’re gone.’ I guarantee you this,” Trump said in July 2015.
Since then, it appears Snowden has fallen off Trump’s to-do list. And some believe the Russian president likes keeping him under his wing, even at a time when he wants to strike deals with Trump.
“I don’t think it’s high on Trump’s agenda, and, actually, I don’t think Putin has a big interest in extraditing him,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch and a leading defender of Snowden’s “heroic” leaks.
Snowden remains in hiding in Russia with his partner, Lindsay Mills, mostly keeping a low profile. Just last month, however, Mills shared a rare photo of Snowden on her Instagram account, at what appears to be a restaurant overlooking the Moscow skyline.
Snowden himself addressed the possibility of extradition in May, in a podcast interview with The Intercept.
“Donald Trump is going to be coming out to Russia, you know, whenever he can,” Snowden told journalist Mehdi Hasan, before Monday’s meeting in Helsinki had been announced.
“It seems clear there is no one in this world he loves more than the Russian president. Will he try to make some kind of deal? Maybe,” he added. “Can I do anything about it? No.”
Trump is not the only top U.S. official to have called for Snowden’s return and execution. As a member of Congress in 2016, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed Trump’s opinion. “He should be brought back from Russia and given due process, and I think the proper outcome would be that he would be given a death sentence,” Pompeo told C-SPAN in February of that year.
Snowden’s ACLU lawyer Ben Wizner declined to comment for this article.
Following the beginning of his June 2013 leaks, Snowden commanded world headlines for months. But even as top lawmakers demanded the extradition of 25 Russians who have now been indicted by the Justice Department for 2016 election interference, Snowden went unmentioned.
“These individuals must be brought to the United States so that they can stand trial, and you should demand that Mr. Putin hand them over,” eight senior Democratic senators, including the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote in a Saturday letter to Trump that did not mention the former NSA contractor.
If Putin were to send Snowden back to the United States, he’d await trial in a prison cell. The espionage charges against him carry decades of jail time and bar him from using a whistleblower defense in trial. Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told Russia in 2013 the U.S. would not seek the death penalty for Snowden, as a way to prevent Russia from granting the former contractor political asylum. Holder told Russia the charges against Snowden did not carry a death penalty and that the government would not pursue the death penalty even if he were charged with additional crimes that carry a death penalty. But it’s not clear whether Trump’s Justice Department would agree.