Behind the scenes, there was much confusion among Trump’s aides regarding the Putin invitation, which once again called into question whether the President supported his own Administration’s increasingly hawkish policies on Russia. One American national-security expert who spoke with them told me that the U.S. Ambassador in Moscow, the former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, and a senior Kremlin foreign-policy adviser were surprised by Trump’s invitation. They both expected the main focus of the Presidential call to be about Trump’s North Korea negotiations and how Russia, traditionally close to the isolated regime, might help. Right after the call, a senior European diplomat later told me, a Russian counterpart briefed on the discussion recounted to him that Trump and Putin had spoken for forty-one minutes, in a friendly and even joking tone, “and, at the end, there was the invitation to come to Washington.”
The European diplomat was shocked, not only by the invite, which at the time had not yet become public, but also because it occurred as Britain was organizing the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats by the U.K., U.S., and various European countries in response to the poisoning attack in Britain. Once again, when it came to a tough measure against Russia, Trump was proving to be an obstacle, expressing concerns that America not be pushed to do more than Europeans in response to what Trump viewed as a European problem. Over the weekend before the expulsions were announced, the European diplomat received four phone calls from a senior State Department official calling for his nation to expel more Russians. “’I understood that they were worried that, if we don’t expel a lot of people, Trump will say, ‘Why are we?,’” the European diplomat recalled. In Britain, two senior officials later told me, convincing Trump to approve the expulsions involved enlisting support from France and Germany first, then a phone call from Prime Minister Theresa May explaining that the individual European countries’ expulsions, taken together, would be comparable to the number of expulsions by the U.S. Trump signed off, but then exploded on Monday, when the American tally of sixty expelled diplomats became public, and those of individual countries such as France and Germany were much lower, the Washington Post later reported.