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Trump congratulates Putin on his reelection, discusses U.S.-Russian ‘arms race’

President Trump also said that he will discuss what he described as an "arms race" with President Putin. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump congratulated Russian President Vladimir Putin on his reelection victory in a phone call Tuesday and said he intends to meet with Putin to discuss various subjects, including an “arms race” that is “getting out of control.”

The call was initially disclosed by the Kremlin and subsequently confirmed by Trump in remarks at the White House. Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, Trump said he congratulated Putin on “his electoral victory,” adding that he and Putin would get together “in the not-too-distant future.”

Some world leaders have hesitated to congratulate Putin, since his reelection occurred in an environment of state control of much of the news media and his most prominent opponent was barred from the ballot. 

Beyond the congratulations, the Kremlin said, the two leaders discussed Syria, Ukraine, North Korea and arms control.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders answered questions about President Trump's phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 20. (Video: Reuters)

Putin’s reelection takes him one step closer to becoming Russian leader for life

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she does not believe that Trump mentioned Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election or the recent poisoning of a former Russian spy in Salisbury, England, using a Russian nerve agent. Regarding a possible meeting between Trump and Putin, Sanders said that “there aren’t specific plans made at this time, but we want to continue to have a dialogue with Russia.”

The Kremlin also said that Trump and Putin discussed a potential meeting.

“Special attention was paid to making progress on the question of holding a possible meeting at the highest level,” the Kremlin’s statement about the phone call said. “In all, the conversation carried a constructive, businesslike character and was oriented toward overcoming the problems that have piled up in U.S.-Russian relations.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to agree with President Trump on a number of topics at his year end news conference on Dec. 14. (Video: Joyce Lee, Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Trump’s failure to raise Moscow’s alleged poisoning of the former Russian spy in Britain risked angering London, which is trying to rally its closest allies in condemning the attack. Russia has denied involvement in the March 4 poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia Skripal. But the attack has badly damaged British-Russian relations, and British Prime Minister Theresa last week announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats in retaliation.

Trump confirmed the call early Tuesday afternoon to reporters who shouted out questions during a short photo session in the Oval Office with visiting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Poisoning of Russian ex-spy puts spotlight on Moscow’s secret military labs

“I had a call with President Putin and congratulated him on the victory, his electoral victory,” Trump said. “The call had to do, also, with the fact that we will probably get together in the not-too-distant future so that we can discuss arms, we can discuss the arms race. As you know, he made a statement that being in an arms race is not a great thing. That was right after the election, one of the first statements he made. And we are spending $700 billion this year on our military, and a lot of it is that we are going to remain stronger than any other nation in the world, by far.”

Trump continued: “We had a very good call, and I suspect that we’ll probably be meeting in the not-too-distant future to discuss the arms race, which is getting out of control. . . . And also to discuss Ukraine and Syria and North Korea and various other things.”

An hour later, the White House released a summary of the call stating that Trump and Putin touched on “bilateral relations and resolved to continue dialogue about mutual national security priorities and challenges.” It said Trump also “emphasized the importance of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.” The statement added that both leaders “confirmed the need” to continue “shared efforts on strategic stability,” without giving further details.

The Kremlin’s statement also noted that arms issues were discussed.

Putin says Russia is developing nuclear arms that can avoid missile defenses

“The leaders said they would work to develop practical cooperation in various directions, including in questions of assuring strategic stability and fighting international terrorism,” the Kremlin said. “Among other things, the need to coordinate efforts to limit an arms race was discussed.”

The call appeared to catch U.S. lawmakers by surprise, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) promptly denounced it.

“An American president does not lead the Free World by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections,” McCain wrote on Twitter. “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.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also distanced himself Tuesday from Trump’s congratulatory remarks. “Well, the president can call whomever he chooses,” McConnell said with a chuckle at his weekly news conference Tuesday afternoon. “When I look at a Russian election, what I see is a lack of credibility in tallying the results. I’m always reminded of the election they used to have in almost every communist country where whoever the dictator was at the moment always got huge percentage of the vote.

 McConnell added: “So calling him wouldn’t have been high on my list.”

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert strongly criticized the Russian elections in a news briefing Tuesday, citing a preliminary report by a monitoring group, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which noted instances of intimidation. But she defended Trump’s call to congratulate Putin as standard “protocol,” noting that both countries are major powers.

“Whether folks like it or not, we have a relationship with the Russian government,” Nauert said. “That is just simply a reality. . . . That does not mean we agree with them on everything. That does not mean that we get along on every single issue.”

Putin won a fourth presidential term in Sunday’s Russian election, allowing him to serve until 2024. He took 77 percent of the votes, with 68 percent turnout, the government said. But Putin barely campaigned, opposition activist Alexei Navalny was barred from the ballot, and reports of ballot-stuffing and people being ordered to vote by their employers rolled in throughout election day.

Putin ally warns of arms race in response to U.S. nuclear stance

At the White House press briefing Tuesday afternoon, Sanders said Trump would continue to be “tough” on Russia but that he also wants to have an open dialogue with Putin. She twice declined to comment on how the Russian election was conducted and whether it was fair.

“We don’t get to dictate how other countries operate,” Sanders said. “What we do know is that 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 — something we 100-percent fully support.”

In the Oval Office on Tuesday, Trump also repeated his warnings of a possible U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, which was negotiated during the Obama administration between Iran and six world powers, including Russia and the United States.

Trump faces a May 12 deadline to decide whether to keep in place a waiver on economic sanctions that were lifted in exchange for curbs on Tehran’s nuclear program. If Trump does not sign the wavier, the pre-deal U.S. sanctions would automatically go back into effect.

Russia and U.S. allies in Europe strongly support the Iran deal and worry that a U.S. rebuff could leave it in tatters.

“Well, we’re going to see what happens,” Trump told reporters.

“You’re going to see what I do,” he added. “But Iran has not been treating that part of the world or the world itself appropriately. A lot of bad things are happening in Iran. The deal is coming up in one month, and you’ll see what happens. Okay?”

Troianovski reported from Moscow. John Hudson, Seung Min Kim, Karen DeYoung, William Branigin and Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.

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