President Trump on Wednesday defended his congratulatory call to Russian President Vladimir Putin on his reelection, saying that getting along with one of the United States’ biggest geopolitical rivals is a “good thing, not a bad thing.”
In a series of tweets, Trump criticized his predecessors for failing to establish a better relationship with Russia, asserting that the last president from his party, George W. Bush, lacked the “smarts” to get along.
Much of the criticism of the call placed by Trump on Tuesday — including from fellow Republicans — has focused not on the call itself but the fact that Trump chose not to heed talking points from aides. Those notes instructed him not to congratulate Putin on his victory in what is not considered a free election and 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.
Aides have also said that Trump did not mention Russian interference in the 2016 election in the United States during the congratulatory call.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) was among the lawmakers who spoke out against Trump’s call on Wednesday, telling reporters, “I wouldn’t have a conversation with a criminal.”
Grassley cited the recent poisoning as well as aggressive actions by Russia toward other nations in its region.
In his tweets, Trump suggested the criticism of his call was being generated by the “Fake News Media,” which he called “crazed” and said would have liked him to “excoriate” Putin.
“Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing,” Trump wrote. “They can help solve problems with North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, ISIS, Iran and even the coming Arms Race.” (In recent weeks, both the United States and Russia have been touting nuclear weapons plans.)
In his tweets, Trump said that Bush, his Republican predecessor, had “tried to get along” with Russia “but didn’t have the ‘smarts.’ ”
Trump said that President Barack Obama and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, also tried “but didn’t have the energy or chemistry.”
“PEACE THROUGH STRENGTH!” Trump concluded.
Trump’s call to Putin also drew attention because of a Washington Post report that he offered his congratulations despite warnings against doing so from his national security advisers, which included a section in his briefing materials in all-capital letters stating “DO NOT CONGRATULATE,” according to officials familiar with the call.
White House officials and some congressional Republicans reacted angrily on Wednesday to what they claimed was a leak of sensitive national security information, trying to focus on that issue rather than the contents of Trump’s call.
On Twitter, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he found both aspects problematic.
“I don’t agree with congratulating #Putin but bigger outrage is this leak that could only come from someone in @POTUS inner circle,” Rubio said. “If you don’t like President resign, but this ongoing pattern of duplicity holds potential for serious damage to the nation.”
Others, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), have objected to Trump offering congratulations to Putin, given irregularities surrounding the vote.
“An American president does not lead the free world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections,” McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on Twitter.
Trump boosters have noted that Obama had called Putin after his last election in 2012 and offered congratulations, according to a readout of the call provided by the White House at the time.
The readout also said that the two leaders talked about some differences.
“President Obama and President-Elect Putin agreed to continue discussions on areas where the United States and Russia have differed, including Syria and missile defense,” the 2012 readout said. “President Obama and President-Elect Putin agreed to continue their efforts to find common ground and remove obstacles to better relations.”
Though Trump did not mention the poisoning of the former Russian spy and his daughter during his call this week with Putin, the president acknowledged the importance of the issue in a call Wednesday with French President Emmanuel Macron, according to a readout of that call by the Trump White House.
“The Presidents reiterated their solidarity with the United Kingdom in the wake of Russia’s use of chemical weapons against private citizens on British soil and agreed on the need to take action to hold Russia accountable,” the readout said.