This article has been updated.
The last time Vladimir Putin won a presidential election in Russia was in March 2012, when he was serving as the country’s prime minister. President Barack Obama, with his own reelection campaign underway, offered Putin his congratulations.
“President Obama and President-Elect Putin agreed that the successful reset in relations should be built upon during the coming years,” a readout of Obama’s call with Putin said. “The two leaders outlined areas for future cooperation, including strengthening trade and investment relations arising out of Russia’s pending accession to the WTO.”
That anodyne language masks the conflict within the administration over how Obama should respond. The administration’s first response came from the State Department, which issued a statement congratulating not Putin but the Russian people. It cited a report from election observers with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that drew attention to irregularities in the vote.
“We also note, however, the OSCE’s concerns about the conditions under which the campaign was conducted,” the statement read, “the partisan use of government resources, and procedural irregularities on election day, among other issues.”
The New York Times reported that there were elements of the administration that “wanted to strongly condemn the outcome” of the vote, a contingent that was overruled, given Obama’s desire to work with Russia on problems such as those involving Syria and Iran.
“There was also some sense at the White House that little good could come from a debate over Russia policy, traditionally a divisive topic, during a presidential election year,” the Times reported.
Part of the frustration the administration was experiencing was that Putin had sharply attacked Hillary Clinton, Obama’s secretary of state, after parliamentary elections in Russia the previous year. Clinton had publicly expressed the United States’ “serious concerns” about those elections. A few days after those comments, major protests erupted in the country.
Putin blamed Clinton for the unrest, saying that she’d “sent a signal” to opposition groups in the country. The tension between Putin and Clinton that sharpened during that period was cited as the rationale for Russia’s interfering in the U.S. 2016 presidential campaign to the detriment of Clinton, the Democratic nominee.
“In May 2016,” Time magazine reported last year, “a Russian military intelligence officer bragged to a colleague that his organization, known as the GRU, was getting ready to pay Clinton back for what President Vladimir Putin believed was an influence operation she had run against him five years earlier as secretary of state.”
How effective that interference was in influencing the 2016 election is subject to a great deal of debate. But regardless, Clinton didn’t win. Donald Trump was elected president, and, after Putin was reelected last weekend, it fell to him to offer the United States’ response.
As was the case in 2012, the Russian election was marked by problems, including ballot-stuffing, intimidation and coercion. The OCSE issued a statement calling the election “orderly” but noting that the campaign “took place in an overly controlled legal and political environment marked by continued pressure on critical voices.”
In comments to the news media Tuesday, Trump didn’t express those concerns.
“I had a call with President Putin and congratulated him on the victory, his electoral victory,” Trump said. He continued: “We had a very good call, and I suspect that we will probably be meeting in the not-too-distant-future to discuss the arms race, which is getting out of control, but we will never allow anybody to have anything even close to what we have, and also to discuss Ukraine and Syria and North Korea and various other things. So, I think probably we will be seeing President Putin in the not-too-distant-future.”
Update: It turns out, President Trump’s national security team specifically warned him not to congratulate Russian president Vladimir Putin. He did anyway.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a frequent critic of Trump, issued a statement harshly criticizing Trump’s response.
“An American president does not lead the Free World by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections,” McCain said. “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.”
During a daily news briefing Tuesday, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked whether the White House agreed with McCain’s characterization of the election as a “sham.”
“We disagree with the fact that we shouldn’t have conversations with Russia,” Sanders replied. She went on to insist that the administration is “going to be tough on Russia, particularly when it comes to areas that we feel where they’ve stepped out of place.”
“We don’t get to dictate how other countries operate,” she later added. “What we do know is Putin has been elected in their country, and that’s not something that we can dictate to them, how they operate. We can only focus on the freeness and the fairness of our elections …”
In August, Sanders explained in a statement why Trump refused a phone call from Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
“President Trump has asked that Maduro respect Venezuela’s constitution, hold free and fair elections, release political prisoners, cease all human rights violations, and stop oppressing Venezuela’s great people,” Sanders said. “The Maduro regime has refused to heed this call, which has been echoed around the region and the world. Instead Maduro has chosen the path of dictatorship.”
The response to Russia is not the first time that Trump has turned a blind eye to questionable election results. Shortly after he was inaugurated, Turkey held a closely contested referendum that revamped the country’s constitution to give more power to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. OCSE observers offered similar critiques as those following Russia’s recent election: The election included irregularities, and voters “were not provided with impartial information about key aspects of the reform, and civil society organizations were not able to participate.”
The State Department echoed the OCSE’s concerns, stating publicly that the United States “look[s] to the government of Turkey to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of all its citizens. … The United States continues to support Turkey’s democratic development, to which commitment to the rule of law and a diverse and free media remain essential.”
Trump, speaking to Erdogan by phone, offered no such critique. He simply congratulated Erdogan on the results of the contest.
After Russia’s elections this weekend, the State Department issued no statement about the outcome or about election irregularities.
The website still features the name of Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. He was fired a week ago.
This article was updated with Sanders’s response.