President Trump did not follow specific warnings from his national security advisers Tuesday when he congratulated Russian President Vladimir Putin on his reelection — including a section in his briefing materials in all-capital letters stating “DO NOT CONGRATULATE,” according to officials familiar with the call.
Trump also chose not to heed talking points from aides instructing him to condemn the recent poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain with a powerful nerve agent, a case that both the British and U.S. governments have blamed on Moscow.
Even if Trump didn’t read the briefing (always a strong possibility), one is struck by Trump’s reflexive deference to the Russian autocrat. At a time he lashes out at everyone from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to our trading partners to the FBI, he nevertheless bends over backward to avoid confronting the Russian tyrant. Instead of standing up for the United States, Trump rolls over for Russia.
This behavior “sends a message to the American people that President Trump doesn’t care about Russian interference in our election, that President Trump doesn’t care about fair elections, and that what President Trump does care about is pleasing Putin,” says former FBI special agent Clinton Watts. “Also congratulating Putin’s electoral win, and then not challenging Putin on the nerve agent attack in the UK is the equivalent of telling Putin he can do whatever he wants.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was irate. “An American president does not lead the Free World by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections,” he said in a written statement. “And by doing so with Vladimir Putin, President Trump insulted every Russian citizen who was denied the right to vote in a free and fair election to determine their country’s future, including the countless Russian patriots who have risked so much to protest and resist Putin’s regime.” Likewise, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told a press gaggle Tuesday night, “Every time you talk with Putin and you give him a pass, that emboldens him. So our friends in Britain are probably disappointed the president didn’t push back.”
As has often been the case, GOP leadership was far more muted. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) could only say that such a call would not have been “high on my list.” Even worse, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) insisted that the call was “fine.” It would be nice if — at least just once — GOP leaders and the committee chairman would challenge the president directly. “Mr. President, that’s not how the leader of the Free World behaves. You communicate weakness or gullibility when you act this way. Why can’t you ever manage to stand up to Putin?”
Human rights advocates were horrified. “Putin should be condemned, not congratulated, for leading an authoritarian regime that cynically manipulates its own elections and actively works to undermine elections in the United States and other democracies,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “The United States should recognize Putin as the leader of a repressive government that seeks to export its model of denying fundamental freedoms, and its intolerance of opposition.”
Likewise, David Kramer, former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, wryly observed, “If he had to call at all, Trump should have called Putin on Saturday, the day before the so-called election, to congratulate him since the outcome was already known, with Putin having ensured ‘victory’ with the murder in 2015 of one leading Russian opposition figure (Boris Nemtsov) and the disqualification of another ([Alexei] Navalny) on an absurd conviction.” He cautioned, “No Western leader should have congratulated Putin because Russia didn’t hold an election in any true sense of that word. Russians deserve better. And to say nothing about the recent poisoning in the UK, interference in our and other elections, or Russian actions in Syria and Ukraine is to embolden Putin to continue such outrageous conduct.”
Trump’s servility when it comes to Putin defies a benign explanation and takes us to the heart of the Russia scandal: What does Putin “have” on Trump, and why is Trump so reluctant to defend American interests when it comes to only this world leader? Mueller can ask Stephen K. Bannon and Michael Flynn about Trump’s mysterious passivity, but he might want to question outgoing secretary of state Rex Tillerson, too. He would no doubt be entirely candid and might have some important insights into Trump’s refusal to challenge Putin. Come to think of it, Mike Pompeo, the CIA director who has been nominated to replace Tillerson, might have something to say on this score as well.