President Trump called Putin today and congratulated him on his election victory. This afternoon, the Washington Post reported that White House staff specifically warned the president against offering his congratulations to Putin, in all caps no less:
President Trump did not follow specific warnings from his national security advisers when he congratulated Russian President Vladimir Putin Tuesday 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 Putin about the recent poisoning of a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom with a powerful nerve agent, a case that both the British and U.S. governments have blamed on Moscow…
It was not clear whether Trump read the notes, administration officials said. Trump, who initiated the call, opened it with the congratulations for Putin, one person familiar with the conversation said.
The attempted assassination on British soil is one good reason why President Trump shouldn’t have done this. That attack was never mentioned during the call. But there are other reasons to avoid saying this. Putin may have been elected with a resounding 76% of the vote, but the election itself included some obvious ballot-stuffing.
In addition, Putin’s chief rival in the race was forbidden from running after a fraud prosecution that many observers saw as politically motivated. Trump’s decision has already been criticized by frequent Trump critic John McCain:
An American president does not lead the Free World by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections. 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. https://t.co/lcQTBi7CA1
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) March 20, 2018
White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders defended the president:
“We’ve been very clear in the actions that we’ve taken that we’re going to be tough on Russia, particularly when it comes to areas that we feel where they’ve stepped out of place,” Sanders said. “We’ve placed tough sanctions on Russia and a number of other things where we have shown exactly what our position is.”
She emphasized, however, that Trump is determined to establish a working relationship with Putin to tackle global challenges, including confronting North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Asked whether the Trump administration believes Russia conducted a “free and fair” election, Sanders said the administration is focused on U.S. elections.
“We don’t get to dictate how other countries operate,” she 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.”
It is true that Trump’s administration did recently place sanctions on Russia over 2016 election meddling, but those sanctions didn’t come up in the call either. I’m all for keeping an open channel but Putin is not our friend. He wasn’t our friend even back when Barack Obama was mocking the idea he was our primary geopolitical foe during the 2012 election. Here’s the clip of the president describing his call with Putin.