White House Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert on Friday said that at the G20 Summit earlier this month, President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin “broached” the idea of continuing “a dialogue” regarding normal behavior in cyber space.

Trump’s top adviser on homeland security and cyber security matters, told media the two leaders discussed “an opportunity to continue a dialogue, one that had in the past existed between the two countries, and I think one that we could pursue in the future with the appropriate reservations and the appropriate expectations, that we at least start with what is acceptable behavior in cyberspace and what the norms and expectations that we’ll have moving forward, long before you get into the enforcement of those rules or anywhere near before we get into a partnership.” He added that, “I’d like those same rules, norms and expectations to be part of our conversation as we discuss any potential future dialogue with the Russians in cyber security.”

Thomas Bossert, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism. Photo: Atlantic Council.
Thomas Bossert, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism. Photo: Atlantic Council.

Bossert spoke aboard Air Force One en route to the U.S. from Paris where Trump met with French President Emmanuel Macron last week during France’s Bastille Day celebrations. His remarks and questions from the media were made available by the White House.

Trump, last Sunday, following the G20 Summit in Germany where he and Putin met separately for discussions, tweeted that the two of them talked about “forming and impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things will be guarded.” Later that day, after negative bipartisan reactions began to swell about the tweet, Trump again tweeted that “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!”

The ceasefire refers to operations in southwestern Syria, although details of the agreement have been sparse.

Any “partnership” the U.S. and Russia may eventually have around cyberspace issues will have to wait until there is a “trusted relationship and you’ve come to some common agreement on ideals and goals and behaviors,” Bossert said. “I don’t believe that the United States and Russia have come to that point yet in cyberspace.” A dialogue is a starting point, he added.

Bossert did not attend the G20 Summit. He said that Trump is “right” in wanting to have dialogue with countries that the U.S. has “friction or disagreements” with because it is in the nation’s interest to seek “a positive result.” He added that he will work with other key senior leaders, including U.S. secretaries of state, defense, homeland security and treasury, on shaping these conversations.

Bossert said that Trump began his conversation with Putin by “pointedly and exactingly telling” him “that we will not have our elections messed with.”

The U.S. intelligence community charges that Vladimir Putin ordered a campaign to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential elections and intentionally tried to damage Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton chances of becoming president. Trump’s response hasn’t been accepting of the findings, most recently saying Russia may have interfered in the U.S. elections as could other “people and other countries.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who campaigned to be the Republican candidate for president, tweeted last Sunday after Trump’s first tweet that “Partnering with Putin on a ‘Cyber Security Unit’ is akin to partnering with Assad on a ‘Chemical Weapons Unit.” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been blamed for using chemical against opposing militia and civilians in his country’s ongoing civil war.

Cyberspace is often called the “Wild West” by a host of cyber security experts because it is a highly unsettled domain with regard to how nation states should behave toward one another. In Sept. 2015, in response to concerns about China’s theft of U.S. intellectual property and trade secrets, then President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping agreed that both countries’ governments would not conduct or support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property.

Bossert said the agreements with China on the rules of the road are “nonbinding” and remain in effect.

“And that’s something that we would expect the Chinese to continue to honor,” Bossert said. “The United States is very serious about that.” While Bossert said he has no “trend analysis” on China’s commitment to the agreement, “I believe that they have the resolve to meet that commitment.”