President Trump’s senior advisers were thrown when he told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday that he expected to meet with him soon, as briefings before the call to Moscow included no mention of a possible meeting, and aides have not been instructed to prepare for one, senior administration officials said.
Although Trump told reporters that “probably we’ll be seeing President Putin in the not-too-distant future,” several officials said there are no plans for the two even to be in the same country until November, when both are expected to attend a Group of 20 summit in Argentina.
Amid criticism by some lawmakers of his congratulatory call to Putin, whose 76 percent win in the Russian election Sunday was denounced as a “sham” by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), Trump tweeted Wednesday that “getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing” and said that Moscow could help the United States solve a range of international problems.
Referring to his immediate three predecessors in office, Trump said that George W. Bush didn’t have the “smarts” to get along with the Russians, and that Barack Obama and Bill Clinton “didn’t have the energy or the chemistry.”
Trump’s briefing materials for the Putin call, placed in a binder by the staff secretary’s office for Trump’s review, did not include any reference to a meeting, and specifically warned against congratulating the Russian president, said a person with direct knowledge who, like other officials, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal White House deliberations.
Senior White House officials have previously opposed a bilateral meeting with the Russian president.
Hours before the White House even acknowledged that Trump had spoken to Putin, the Kremlin put its own spin on the call, saying that Trump had called to congratulate Putin and that “special attention was paid to making progress on the question of holding a possible meeting at the highest level.”
The Russian statement forced the hand of the White House, where advisers had disagreed on whether to include Trump’s congratulations in the official U.S. account, two people familiar with the conversation said. When the official White House readout of the call emerged several hours later, it said Trump had congratulated Putin but made no mention of a discussion of a meeting.
For Trump, such spur-of-the-moment remarks to foreign leaders are not unusual, and often have had little lasting meaning, officials said, noting that he often issues invitations to a meal or a meeting.
The call to Putin was the second time this month that Trump has made an impromptu announcement that he planned to meet with a foreign leader, although his March 8 decision to hold talks with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un appeared to carry more weight and has sparked a flurry of internal planning.
Both moves bore the hallmarks of an emboldened president who appears increasingly comfortable in disregarding the advice of his most senior advisers, and facing off with the most implacable U.S. foes, regardless of the potential risks.
“No one was planning on a meeting with Putin at this point, given all the questions about continuing Russian interference in our elections and the ongoing Mueller probe, never mind the . . . poisoning” of a former Russian double agent this month in Britain, said Angela Stent, who was a national intelligence officer with a focus on Russia in the administration of President George W. Bush. “This shows that Trump continues to believe that he can make a ‘deal’ with Putin and is unconstrained by his advisers who have been arguing for restraint and caution.”
Advocates of closer ties between the United States and Russia also defended Trump’s decision to dictate his own meeting with the Russian leader as well within his prerogative.
“The president is signaling that he is going to take center spotlight as diplomat in chief,” said Matt Rojansky, a Russia scholar at the Wilson Center. “I can imagine he does not want to wait to be directed or handled by the bureaucracy on even these extremely difficult negotiations, because he has spent his adult life negotiating deals. It might mean he gets out ahead of his advisers, but their job is to catch up, and they will.”
Although Trump said early in his campaign that he and the Russian leader were good friends, he later acknowledged that he had never met Putin. The two presidents subsequently sat down together at last summer’s G-20 meeting in Germany, and at an Asia-Pacific economic summit in November.
One senior U.S. official attributed Trump’s resistance to guidance that he should distance himself from Putin to the president’s belief that he should not have to forfeit his pursuit of better relations with Moscow to a Russia investigation at home that he thinks is illegitimate.
In an interview with NBC this month, Putin aligned himself with Trump’s stated belief that good relations with Russia are a priority. Asked why Trump was “always so nice to you,” Putin said that “this is not about being nice to me personally, in my view. I think he is an experienced person, a businessman with very extensive experience, and he understands that if you need to partner with someone, you must treat your future or current partner with respect, otherwise nothing will come of it. I think this is a purely pragmatic approach.”
Some administration officials defended Trump’s personal approach to Putin, noting that what he said was often different from what he did, such as imposing new sanctions this month against Russia, and his decision to send lethal U.S. weapons to Ukraine to aid the country’s fight against Russian-backed separatists, something President Barack Obama had declined to do.
In his tweets Wednesday, Trump said Russia could “help solve problems with North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, ISIS, Iran and even the coming Arms Race.” In Syria and Ukraine, the United States has been harshly critical of Russian actions — to little avail — and has charged that Russia’s ongoing support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has made the final defeat of the Islamic State more difficult.
Moscow also continues a close relationship with Tehran, and the United States has accused Russia of helping North Korea evade sanctions.
Seeking to deflect criticism of Trump’s call to Putin, the White House issued a statement Wednesday noting that Obama, too, had called Putin to congratulate him on a previous electoral victory.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also congratulated Putin this week.
Britain has accused Russia of responsibility for the recent nerve agent attack in Britain on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, who served as a double agent for Britain before settling there. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on Wednesday compared Putin’s promotion of this summer’s World Cup soccer tournament in Russia to Adolf Hitler’s use of the 1936 Berlin Olympics for propaganda purposes.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the Skripal poisoning — about which Trump signed a letter, along with his counterparts in Britain, Germany and France, blaming Russia — did not come up during the phone call with Putin.
But after a call Wednesday with French President Emmanuel Macron, the White House issued a statement saying, “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.”
Anne Gearan and John Wagner in Washington, William Booth in London, Griff Witte in Berlin and James McAuley in Paris contributed to this report.