Russian Bots, Trolls Test Waters Ahead of US Midterms

The sponsors of the Russian “troll factory” that meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign have launched a new American website ahead of the U.S. midterm election in November. A Russian oligarch has links to Maryland’s election services. Russian bots and trolls are deploying increasingly sophisticated, targeted tools. And a new indictment suggests the Kremlin itself was behind previous hacking efforts in support of Donald Trump.

As the U.S. leader prepares to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday, many Americans are wondering: Is the Kremlin trying yet again to derail a U.S. election?

While U.S. intelligence officials call it a top concern, they haven’t uncovered a clear, coordinated Russian plot to mess with the campaign. At least so far.

It could be that Russian disruptors are waiting until the primaries are over in September and the races become more straightforward — or it could be they are waiting until the U.S. presidential vote in 2020, which matters more for U.S. foreign policy.

In the meantime, an array of bots, trolls and sites like USAReally appear to be testing the waters.

USAReally was launched in May by the Federal News Agency, part of an empire allegedly run by Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin that includes the Internet Research Agency — the “troll factory” whose members were indicted by U.S. special investigator Robert Mueller this year.

USAReally’s Moscow offices are in the same building as the Federal News Agency. The original troll factory was also initially based with Federal News Agency offices in St. Petersburg, in a drab three-story building where a huge “For Rent/Sale” sign now hangs. The site believed to house the troll factory’s current offices is a more modern, seven-story complex with reflective blue windows in a different but similarly industrial neighborhood of St. Petersburg. Associated Press reporters were not allowed inside, and troll factory employees declined to be interviewed.

The USAReally site appears oddly amateurish and obviously Russian, with grammatical flubs and links to Russian social networks.

It says it’s aimed at providing Americans “objective and independent” information, and chief editor Alexander Malkevich says it’s not about influencing the midterm election. Yet his Moscow office is adorned with a confederate flag, Trump pictures and souvenirs and a talking pen that parrots famous Trump quotations.

“Disrupt elections? You will do all that without us,” he told The Associated Press. He said Americans themselves have created their own divisions, whether over gun rights, immigrants or LGBT rights — all topics his site has posted articles about.

Most online manipulation ahead of the midterm election is coming from U.S. sources, experts say. They worry that focusing on Russian spy-mongering may distract authorities from more dangerous homegrown threats.

There is Russian activity, to be sure. But it appears aimed less at swaying the U.S. Congress one way or another and more at proving to fellow Russians that democracy is unsafe — and thereby legitimizing Putin’s autocratic rule at home.

While security services are on high alert, “the intelligence community has yet to see evidence of a robust campaign aimed at tampering with election infrastructure along the lines of 2016,” Christopher Krebs, the undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security, told a Congressional hearing Wednesday.

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to worry about.

National Intelligence Director Dan Coats said Friday that warning lights about overall cyber-threats to the U.S. are “blinking red” — much like “blinking red” signals warned before 9/11 that a terror attack was imminent.

Coats said that while the U.S. is not seeing the kind of Russian electoral interference that occurred in 2016, digital attempts to undermine America are not coming only from Russia. They’re occurring daily, he said, and are “much bigger than just elections.”

Intelligence officials still spot individuals affiliated with the Internet Research Agency creating new social media accounts that are masqueraded as belonging to Americans, according to Coats. The Internet Research Agency uses the fake accounts to drive attention to divisive issues in the U.S., he said.

USAReally plays a similar role.

“USAReally is unlikely to create big momentum in its own right,” in part thanks to stepped-up actions by Twitter and Facebook to detect and shut down automated accounts, said Aric Toler of the Bellingcat investigative group.

However, Toler said the site could build momentum by creating divisive content that then gets passed to other provocative news aggregators in the U.S. such as InfoWars or Gateway Pundit.

He believes that a key role for sites like USAReally is to please the Kremlin and to prove that Prigozhin’s empire is still active in the U.S. news sphere.

Prigozhin, sometimes dubbed “Putin’s chef” because of his restaurant businesses, has not commented publicly on USAReally. Prigozhin and 12 other Russians are personally charged with participating in a broad conspiracy to sow discord in the U.S. political system from 2014 through 2017.

Editor Malkevich confirms his site’s funding comes from the Federal News Agency. But he says he has nothing to do with the indicted trolls, who once operated under the same roof.

“I absolutely don’t understand this spy mania,” he said. He says the site has a few thousand followers, and that his 30 journalists and editors check facts and don’t use bots.

The big question is what Trump plans to do about this.

Trump is under heavy pressure to tell Putin to stay out of U.S. elections when they meet, and he said Friday that he would. But many state lawmakers and members of Congress say it’s taken far too long, and that Trump’s refusal to condemn Russia’s interference in the 2016 election complicates efforts to combat future attacks.

Adding to the pressure on Trump is a new indictment issued Friday accusing 12 Russian military intelligence officials of extensive hacking in 2016 that was specifically aimed at discrediting Trump’s rival, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

After the top U.S. intelligence agencies found a Putin-ordered influence campaign in which Russian hackers targeted at least 21 states ahead of the 2016 election, several state election directors fear further attempts to hack into voting systems could weaken the public’s confidence in elections.

Maryland officials announced Friday that a vendor providing key election services is owned by a company whose chief investor is well-connected Russian businessman Vladimir Potanin. The FBI told state officials no criminal activity has been detected since vendor ByteGrid was purchased in 2015 by AltPoint Capital Partners.

Experts note that governments have been using technology to influence foreign powers for millennia, and caution against assuming the Russians are always at fault.

“Just because it’s a troll doesn’t mean it’s a Russian troll,” said Ben Nimmo of the Atlantic Council. “The really big challenge for the midterms … is differentiating what the Russians are doing, and what the Americans are doing to each other.”

 

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Artificial Intelligence Cannot Replace Doctors, Can Work Alongside Them

Robots can do a lot of things people can do… but can they replace doctors? A London-based artificial intelligence company says its AI robot doctors can diagnose patients just as well as a human clinician. But some general practitioners say the service can never replicate the level of care given by human doctors. VOA Correspondent Mariama Diallo reports.

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Indictment Undercuts Assange on Source of Hacked Emails

At the beginning of 2017, one of Julian Assange’s biggest media boosters traveled to the WikiLeaks founder’s refuge inside the Ecuadorean Embassy in London and asked him where he got the leaks that shook up the U.S. presidential election months earlier.

Fox News host Sean Hannity pointed straight to the purloined emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.

“Can you say to the American people, unequivocally, that you did not get this information about the DNC, John Podesta’s emails, can you tell the American people 1,000 percent you did not get it from Russia or anybody associated with Russia?”

“Yes,” Assange said. “We can say — we have said repeatedly — over the last two months that our source is not the Russian government and it is not a state party.”

12 Russians indicted

The Justice Department’s indictment Friday of 12 Russian military intelligence officers undermines those denials. And if the criminal charges are proved, it would show that WikiLeaks (referred to as “Organization 1” in the indictment) received the material from Guccifer 2.0, a persona directly controlled by Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff, also known as GRU, and even gave the Russian hackers advice on how to disseminate it.

Whether Assange knew that those behind Guccifer 2.0 were Russian agents is not addressed in the indictment. But it seems unlikely that Assange, a former hacker who once boasted of having compromised U.S. military networks himself, could have missed the extensive coverage blaming the Kremlin for the DNC hack.

Assange told Hannity he exercised exclusive control over WikiLeaks’ releases.

“There is one person in the world, and I think it’s actually only one, who knows exactly what’s going on with our publications and that’s me,” Assange said.

Timeline

On June 22, 2016, by which point the online publication Motherboard had already debunked Guccifer 2.0’s claim to be a lone Romanian hacker, WikiLeaks sent a typo-ridden message to the persona, saying that releasing the material through WikiLeaks would have “a much higher impact than what you are doing,” the indictment states.

“If you have anything hillary related we want it in the next (two) days pref(er)able because the DNC is approaching and she will solidify bernie supporters behind her after,” says a message from July 6, 2016, referring to the upcoming Democratic National Convention and Clinton’s chief party rival, Bernie Sanders.

The exchange appears to point to a desire to undercut Clinton by playing up divisions within the Democratic camp.

“we think trump has only a 25% chance of winning against hillary … so conflict between bernie and hillary is interesting,” the message says.

At that time in the campaign, there were simmering tensions between the supporters of Clinton and Sanders that would come to a head during the convention because of the hacked emails.

WikiLeaks and a lawyer for Assange, Melinda Taylor, did not return messages seeking comment on the indictment or the exchanges with Guccifer 2.0.

Reporter told to butt out

Assange’s eagerness to get his hands on the alleged material from GRU reflected in the indictment — and prevent anyone else from beating WikiLeaks to the punch — is also revealed in leaked messages to journalist Emma Best. She, like several other reporters, also was in communication with Guccifer 2.0.

In copies of Twitter messages obtained by The Associated Press and first reported by BuzzFeed, WikiLeaks demands that Best butt out.

“Please ‘leave’ their convers(a)tion with them and us,” WikiLeaks said on August 13, 2016, arguing that the impact of material would be “very substantially reduced” if Best handled the leak.

Best told BuzzFeed she dropped the matter. About an hour after the conversation ended, Guccifer 2.0 announced on Twitter that it was sending a “major trove” of data and emails to WikiLeaks.

Seth Rich theory put to rest

The indictment also puts to rest a conspiracy theory, carefully nurtured by Assange and his supporters, that slain DNC staffer Seth Rich was at the origin of the leaks.

Rich died in July 2016 in what police in the District of Columbia say was a botched robbery. But the tragedy became fodder for conspiracy theorists who pushed the unfounded allegation that Rich, 27, had been providing information to the hackers and was killed for it.

It was Assange who first floated the idea into the mainstream, bringing up Rich’s case in an interview with Dutch television the following month.

“What are you suggesting?” the startled anchor asked him.

“I’m suggesting that our sources take risks and they become concerned to see things occurring like that,” Assange answered.

The anchor pressed Assange repeatedly, eventually saying: “It’s quite something to suggest a murder. That’s basically what you’re doing.”

Over the next few months, WikiLeaks would continue to amplify the conspiracy theory — all while stopping short of endorsing it outright. During all this time, the indictment alleges, WikiLeaks knew full well that Guccifer 2.0 was its source, cajoling the account’s operators to hand it more data and ordering rival journalists to steer clear.

The conspiracy theory has been a source of deep pain for Rich’s family, who declined to comment on the indictment.

Lisa Lynch, an associate professor of media and communications at Drew University who has written about WikiLeaks, said the indictment highlighted the cynicism of WikiLeaks’ wink-wink support for conspiracy theories.

“We can see very well-intentioned people arguing about whether those documents should be published,” Lynch said of the DNC documents. “But the whole Seth Rich thing is incredibly venal.”

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France Celebrates Bastille Day With Military Spending Boost – but not as Much as Trump Wants

France is marked Bastille Day Saturday with its traditional display of military might — a veritable assault of troops, helicopters, fighter planes taking over the skies and the famous Champs Elysees avenue of Paris. France’s defense budget is getting a sizeable boost that will meet NATO’s two percent spending commitment by 2025— and reverse a decade of budget cuts. But it may not be enough for Washington. 

Last year, U.S. President Donald Trump was at the Bastille Day parade here in a visit that forged a personal bond with his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron. This year, President Macron attended the festivities with another leader — the prime minister of Singapore. But Macron and Trump met days earlier— at a fractious NATO summit that saw the U.S. leader criticizing allies for not spending enough on defense. 

France’s new military spending bill is a step toward meeting that goal. Signed by Macron hours before the Bastille parade, it sees boosting military spending by several hundred billion dollars over seven years, to hit the 2 percent NATO target by 2025. What it doesn’t do is double that amount — as Trump demanded of NATO allies and suggested they agreed to. 

 

“There’s no way this multi-year budget would meet this 4 percent request for NATO which caught everyone by surprise,” said Pierre Tran, Paris bureau chief of Defense News.

He says even signed, the bill’s spending increase is not a sure deal.

“It not only depends on the next administration which will have to win the elections, this present multi-year defense budget also requires each year’s budget to be approved by the finance ministry,” Tran said. “This multi-year budget can be adopted…can it be implemented? ”

President Macron earlier rejected Trump’s claims that NATO allies had agreed to more than a 2 percent increase. Still French military chiefs will be happy. Last year, Macron announced defense budget cuts —  triggering the resignation of the armed forces chief.

“There are 2 major areas where spending will be allocated,” Tran said. “One is greater spending on intelligence services …and that is in response to terrorism or unconventional fighters in the field. The other large increase will be in equipment.”

France’s military has been pressured to respond to multiple threats in recent years, including at home following a number of terrorist attacks. Overseas, France has about 4,000 troops deployed in an anti-terror mission in the Sahel, working with regional countries. A poll published Saturday in Le Figaro newspaper finds high public support of the military, with nine out of 10 French confident in its ability to fight terrorism. 

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Trump Faults Obama for US Response to Russian Hacking

President Donald Trump on Saturday tried to blame the Obama administration for not responding aggressively enough to Russian hacking of Democratic targets in the 2016 U.S. election — cyberattacks underpinning the indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers.

Trump’s first response to special counsel Robert Mueller’s initial charges against Russian government officials for interfering in American politics came in tweets the president posted while at his golf resort in Scotland, two days before a high-stakes summit in Finland with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

“The stories you heard about the 12 Russians yesterday took place during the Obama Administration, not the Trump Administration,” Trump tweeted. “Why didn’t they do something about it, especially when it was reported that President Obama was informed by the FBI in September, before the Election?

The indictment announced Friday said the Russians hacked into Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic Party and released tens of thousands of private communications as part of a broad conspiracy by the Kremlin to meddle in an American election that ended up putting Trump in the White House.

U.S. intelligence agencies have said Moscow was aiming to help the Trump campaign and harm Clinton’s bid.

The 29-page indictment lays out how, months before Americans voted in November 2016, Russians schemed to break into key Democratic email accounts, including those belonging to Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Stolen emails, many politically damaging for Clinton, appeared on WikiLeaks in the campaign’s final stretch.

The charges say the Russian defendants, using a persona known as Guccifer 2.0, in August 2016 contacted a person in touch with the Trump campaign to offer help. And they say that on the same day Trump, in a speech, urged Russia to find Clinton’s missing emails, Russian hackers tried for the first time to break into email accounts used by her personal office.

Mueller did not allege that Trump campaign associates were involved in the hacking effort, that Americans were knowingly in touch with Russian intelligence officers or that any vote tallies were altered by hacking.

The White House seized on those points in a statement that offered no condemnation of Russian election interference.

Trump has repeatedly expressed skepticism about Russian involvement in the hacking while being accused by Democrats of cozying up to Putin. Trump, hours before the indictment was made public, complained about the Russia investigation hours, saying the “stupidity” was making it “very hard to do something with Russia.”

The Kremlin denied anew that it tried to sway the election. “The Russian state has never interfered and has no intention of interfering in the U.S. elections,” said Putin’s foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov.

The indictment identifies the defendants as officers with Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff, also known as GRU. If that link is established, it would shatter the Kremlin denials of the Russian state’s involvement in the U.S. elections, given that the GRU is part of the state machine.

The Russian defendants are not in custody, and it is not clear they will ever appear in an American court.

The indictment accuses the Russian hackers, starting in March 2016, of covertly monitoring the computers of dozens of Democratic officials and volunteers, implanting malicious computer code known as malware to explore the networks and steal data, and sending phishing emails to gain access to accounts.

One attempt at interference came hours after Trump, in a July 27, 2016, speech, suggested Russians look for emails that Clinton said she had deleted from her tenure as secretary of state.

“Russia, if you’re listening,” Trump said, “I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”

That evening, the indictment says, the Russians attempted to break into email accounts used by Clinton’s personal office, along with 76 Clinton campaign email addresses.

By June 2016, the defendants, relying on fictional personas such as DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0, began planning the release of tens of thousands of stolen emails, the indictment alleges.

The Podesta emails published by WikiLeaks displayed the campaign’s private communications, including deliberations about messaging that played into attacks that Clinton was calculating and a political flip-flopper. Private speeches she gave to financial industry firms were particularly damaging within the left wing of the Democratic party and among independents frustrated with the influence of Wall Street in politics.

The indictment alleges that Guccifer 2.0 was in touch with multiple Americans in the summer of 2016 about the pilfered material, including an unidentified congressional candidate who requested and then received stolen information.

On Aug. 15, 2016, the indictment says, Guccifer 2.0 reached out to someone in contact with the Trump campaign and asked the person if they had seen anything “interesting in the docs I posted?” Guccifer 2.0 said it would be a “great pleasure” to help.

Prosecutors say weeks later, Guccifer 2.0 referred to a stolen DCCC document posted online and asked the person, “what do u think of the info on the turnout model for the democrats entire presidential campaign.” The person responded, “(p)retty standard.”

The indictment doesn’t identify the person, though longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone acknowledged Friday, through his lawyer, a “24-word exchange with someone on Twitter claiming to be Guccifer 2.0.”

“This exchange is now entirely public and provides no evidence of collaboration or collusion with Guccifer 2.0 or anyone else in the alleged hacking of the DNC emails,” said lawyer Grant Smith.

The charges come as Mueller continues to investigate potential coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign. Before Friday, 20 people and three companies had been charged in the investigation.

Defendants include four former Trump campaign and White House aides, three of whom have pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate, and 13 Russians accused in a powerful social media campaign to sway U.S. public opinion in 2016.

Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, said on Twitter that it was time to end the investigation since “no Americans are involved” in Friday’s indictment. But with Mueller still investigating, it’s not known whether further indictments are taking shape or will.

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Trump Says He’ll ‘Firmly’ Ask Putin About Russia’s Interference in US Presidential Election

U.S. President Donald Trump said Friday he would “firmly” ask Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin about his country’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election that has triggered a U.S. federal investigation Trump claims is a “rigged witch hunt.”

“I think it really hurts our country,” Trump said at a news conference in Britain after meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May. “It really hurts our relationship with Russia. I think that we would have a chance at a very good relationship with Russia and a very good chance, a very good relationship with President Putin. I would hope so.”

Trump said he does not anticipate a “Perry Mason” moment when he confronts Putin on the issue, a reference to a decades-old U.S. television courtroom drama, and he predicted Putin would continue to deny the allegations.

 

“I don’t think you’ll have any gee, I did it, I did it, you got me,”‘ Trump said. He added, “There won’t be a Perry Mason here, I don’t think, but you never know what happens, right?”

Just days before the meeting, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russians, alleging Friday they hacked into the Democratic National Committee to undermine the election.

They are the most recent charges in the special counsel probe that already has resulted in guilty pleas from three of Trump’s campaign aides.

In tweets from Scotland on Saturday, Trump questioned why the Obama administration did not act, asked about the location of the DNC server that was hacked, and again questioned the integrity of the FBI.

 

The server was hacked by Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate shortly after then-presidential candidate Trump called on Russian hackers in a July 27, 2016 speech to find emails from Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, the indictment said.

“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” a reference to emails Clinton deleted from a private account she used when she served as secretary of state.

Hours later, Russia’s foreign military intelligence agency targeted Clinton’s personal office for the first time and launched an effort to access 76 Clinton campaign accounts, according to the indictment.

When asked if he has given Putin the advantage going into the meeting by challenging long-standing Western alliances, Trump said his administration has been “far tougher on Russia than anybody.”

“When you look at what we’ve done in terms of Russia, I guarantee whoever it is in Russia, they’re saying ‘oh gee, we wish that Trump was not the victor in that election?”

 

Prime Minister May said Trump is well-positioned as he prepares to meet with Putin, saying, “What is important is that the president goes into this as he is doing from a position of strength and also from a position of unity in NATO.”

NATO allied leaders, who Trump met with in Brussels earlier this week, are skeptical about whether he will be firm enough with the Russian leader, who has denied the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the election with the intent of helping Trump win.

Trump reiterated Friday that he is not going into the meeting with high expectations, but he said the two leaders would also discuss “a number of things,” including cuts to nuclear weapons arsenals. He said the U.S. has been “modernizing and fixing” its nuclear weapons program and added “it’s just a devastating technology and they [the Russians] likewise are doing a lot. And it’s a very, very bad policy.”

Trump has not disclosed details about what nuclear arms control treaties he would propose to Putin, but they may discuss the extension of the “New Start” treaty, a pillar of arms control. They also may discuss the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty to try to reduce the possibility of a nuclear rivalry between the world’s two largest nuclear powers.

Trump cautioned it was difficult to reach substantive agreements with Putin because his critics would accuse him of being a proponent of Russia.

“We have this stupidity going on, pure stupidity, but  it makes it very hard to do something with Russia, because, anything you do, it’s like: ‘Russia, oh He loves Russia.'”

The two leaders are scheduled to meet Monday in Helsinki.

Finnish National Defense University security policy expert Lt. Col. Jyri Raitasalo told VOA the Trump-Putin summit will be largely “symbolic.”

“It could open up new negotiations on a lower level that could actually achieve something,” Raitasalo said. He also said any real progress on issues the leaders discuss “could take time.”

“In most cases, a couple of hours between heads of states that haven’t seen each other for a time and discussed things properly, you can’t achieve much in several hours. But it could be a good start,” said Raitasalo.

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Trump to ‘Firmly’ Ask Putin About Russia’s US Election Meddling

U.S. President Donald Trump said Friday he would “firmly” ask Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin about his country’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election that has triggered a U.S. federal investigation Trump claims is a “rigged witch hunt.”

“I think it really hurts our country,” Trump said at a news conference in Britain after meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May. “It really hurts our relationship with Russia. I think that we would have a chance at a very good relationship with Russia and a very good chance, a very good relationship with President Putin. I would hope so.”

Trump said he does not anticipate a “Perry Mason” moment when he confronts Putin on the issue, a reference to a decades-old U.S. television courtroom drama, and he predicted Putin would continue to deny the allegations.

“I don’t think you’ll have any ‘gee, I did it, I did it, you got me,”’ Trump said. He added, “There won’t be a Perry Mason here, I don’t think, but you never know what happens, right?”

Mueller indictments

Just days before the meeting, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russians, alleging Friday they hacked into the Democratic National Committee to undermine the election.

They are the most recent charges in the special counsel probe that already has resulted in guilty pleas from three of Trump’s campaign aides.

When asked if he has given Putin the advantage going into the meeting by challenging long-standing Western alliances, Trump said his administration has been “far tougher on Russia than anybody.”

“When you look at what we’ve done in terms of Russia, I guarantee whoever it is in Russia, they’re saying ‘oh gee, we wish that Trump was not the victor in that election?”

Prime Minister May said Trump is well-positioned as he prepares to meet with Putin, saying “what is important is that the president goes into this as he is doing from a position of strength and also from a position of unity in NATO.”

NATO skepticism

NATO allied leaders, who Trump met with in Brussels earlier this week, are skeptical about whether he will be firm enough with the Russian leader, who has denied the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the election with the intent of helping Trump win.

Trump reiterated Friday that he is not going into the meeting with high expectations, but he said the two leaders would also discuss “a number of things,” including cuts to nuclear weapons arsenals.

He said the U.S. has been “modernizing and fixing” its nuclear weapons program and added “it’s just a devastating technology and they [the Russians] likewise are doing a lot. And it’s a very, very bad policy.”

Trump has not disclosed details about what nuclear arms control treaties he would propose to Putin, but they may discuss the extension of the “New Start” treaty, a pillar of arms control. They also may discuss the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty to try to reduce the possibility of a nuclear rivalry between the world’s two largest nuclear powers.

Trump cautioned it was difficult to reach substantive agreements with Putin because his critics would accuse him of being a proponent of Russia.

“We have this stupidity going on, pure stupidity, but it makes it very hard to do something with Russia, because, anything you do, it’s like: ‘Russia, oh He loves Russia.'”

Symbolic summit

The two leaders are scheduled to meet Monday in Helsinki.

Finnish National Defense University security policy expert Lt. Col. Jyri Raitasalo told VOA the Trump-Putin summit will be largely “symbolic.”

“It could open up new negotiations on a lower level that could actually achieve something,” Raitasalo said. He also said any real progress on issues the leaders discuss “could take time.”

“In most cases, a couple of hours between heads of states that haven’t seen each other for a time and discussed things properly — you can’t achieve much in several hours. But it could be a good start,” said Raitasalo.

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Melania Trump Dutifully Tries Her Hand at Lawn Bowls

Her game face on, Melania Trump dutifully tried her hand at lawn bowls during a solo outing Friday to a historic London veterans’ retirement home on her first visit to Britain as America’s first lady.

As President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May met just outside London for talks, Mrs. Trump visited Royal Hospital Chelsea, an imposing building founded over 300 years ago by King Charles II that currently houses hundreds of British veterans. She was hosted by May’s husband, Philip.

The pair toured the hospital grounds before joining a small group of elementary schoolchildren and veterans in making red paper poppies, a national symbol for remembering and honoring those fallen in war.

She greeted the children with a cheery “Hello” and a big smile, shaking their hands and asking one to show her how to make a poppy pin.

Reporters were shooed out of the room as the first lady engaged the group in a discussion about “Be Best,” a campaign she unveiled in May to focus on childhood well-being and to teach them kindness.

She ended the visit with a game of bowls with May, the children and the veterans.

There was no sight or sound of the thousands of people rallying against President Trump in central London during his wife’s visit, which her staff managed to largely keep secret to avoid the ire of demonstrators.

Wearing a sleeveless multicolored dress by British fashion designer Victoria Beckham and spiky flesh-tone stilettos, Mrs. Trump appeared to take the game seriously and followed a boy’s advice on how to hold the ball. She stooped several times to roll it across the lawn, smiling and making a few faces.

Children waving British and U.S. flags cheered loudly. She also initiated a high-five with a veteran who gave her effort a thumbs-up.

The visit wrapped up before President Trump and May’s news conference at her official country estate, where he denied ever criticizing the prime minister — not long after a British tabloid published an interview that included his biting criticism of aspects of her leadership.

The first lady’s appearance came amid her return to the international stage after she was hospitalized in May for a kidney surgery and dropped out of sight for nearly a month. She did not accompany the president to his meetings with world leaders in Canada and Singapore last month.

Mrs. Trump and the president were reuniting later Friday for a return trip into the country for a social visit and tea with Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle. The couple planned to head afterward for a private weekend at one of Trump’s golf properties in Scotland.

The first lady caused a stir last month when she wore a jacket with “I really done care, do u?” scrawled on the back on a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border to meet children affected by her husband’s policy against illegal immigration.

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