Donald Trump doesn’t care what anyone thinks about his puzzling relationship with Vladimir Putin – that includes his own foreign policy team, Republican senators and US allies.
That much is clear from the President’s latest encounter with his Russian counterpart Tuesday that highlighted his refusal to ever publicly criticize Putin and his increasing tendency to follow his own counsel.
Trump’s administration says Russia assaulted American democracy, used a nerve agent in an attack on the soil of its closest ally, Britain, and just held an election that cannot be judged free and fair.
Yet the President did not bring up any of those issues during a telephone chat with Putin, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.
Bafflement in Washington about Trump’s attitude to Putin is sure to be exacerbated by a Washington Post report that Trump did not follow briefing materials provided by his advisers which warned “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” – a reference to Putin’s re-election and which also called on him to condemn Russia over the attempted assassination of one of its former spies and his daughter in Britain.
A President has wide autonomy on foreign policy and in normal circumstances it would not be unusual for a commander in chief to deviate from his script. But in Trump’s case the report is the latest example of his unusual deference to Putin, following the 2016 election in which US intelligence agencies assessed the Russians intervened on his behalf.
In fact, Trump spoke about the Russian leader as if he was operating in an alternative reality to the rest of Washington and the West where anger is boiling about Russian election meddling and anxiety about its belligerence is heightening.
Trump congratulated Putin on his election victory, and spoke in an upbeat manner about talks he hoped to hold with him soon, billing their meeting rather like a Reagan-Gorbachev summit from the 1980s.
“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,” Trump told reporters, adding that he and Putin also needed to get together to discuss Ukraine, Syria and North Korea.
His comments represented the latest reflection of a split personality inside the administration on Russia, between the tough line pursued by the likes of Defense Secretary James Mattis and officials on Trump’s national security council and the President’s own friendly rhetoric.
It’s a disconnect that has provoked months of speculation about why Trump is so polite to Putin, one of the few prominent world leaders and politicians not to feel the lash of the President’s tongue or Twitter account.
Those who believe Trump colluded with Russia in the 2016 election argue that the Steele dossier may be correct – that Moscow does have compromising information about the President’s past, that it can use as leverage over him.
Another possible explanation is that Trump is digging in his heels because he sees any criticism of his approach to Russia as bound up in the election meddling issue, that he has blasted as a hoax designed to invalidate his shock White House victory.
Putin meanwhile is one of the group of autocrats and global strongmen that Trump seems to admire – an odd quirk in an American President who often appears tougher on allies than US foes.
Trump also has an unshakeable belief that he is uniquely positioned to defuse a dangerous standoff with Moscow by courting Putin.
Trump’s comments caused a backlash on Capitol Hill.
“The President can call whomever he chooses,” said Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, but added that Putin’s re-election seemed about as credible as rigged votes held in communist nations before the Berlin Wall fell.
“Calling him wouldn’t have been high on my list.”
John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was even more curt.
“An American president does not lead the Free World by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections. And by doing so with Vladimir Putin,” McCain said in a statement.
Whatever is in Trump’s mind, he forced his press team into more rhetorical somersaults to justify his behavior.
“The President once again has maintained that it’s important for us to have a dialogue with Russia, so that we can focus on some areas of shared interests,” said Sanders.
“At the same time, we’re going to continue to be tough on them,” she said, a week after the Treasury imposed new sanctions on Russians to punish election interference and Trump signed on to a paper statement alongside the leaders of Germany and France, backing Britain in its showdown with Russia.
Where does Trump stand?
Is it odd that Trump would call to congratulate Putin on his election win? Not exactly.
President Barack Obama did it in 2012, as he tried to keep his Russia “reset” strategy alive as Sanders pointed out. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert explained Tuesday that the call was merely “protocol” and “standard” – referring reporters to the White House readout.
Other Western leaders also called to congratulate Putin.
But any interactions between Trump and Putin are closely watched given the special counsel investigation into Russian election meddling.
And Trump’s latest comments reveal – yet again – an inconsistency in the President’s rhetoric regarding US policy on “free and fair elections” around the world and that of his own administration.
Nauert said on Tuesday that “it is simply no surprise that Vladimir Putin was reelected,” bemoaning the “clampdown” on basic freedoms in Russia. She added that State agreed with preliminary findings of “gold standard” OSCE monitors that Russia’s election was “overly controlled” and “lacked genuine competition.”
“We have no reason to doubt that the report’s conclusions are incorrect – we have every reason to believe that the conclusions are correct,” she said.
When asked on Tuesday if he was surprised by the election results, Mattis smirked and replied, “not in the least.”
Trump was also criticized for calling Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to congratulate him after his victory in last year’s constitutional referendum.
At the time, Sanders said the call did not mean Trump thought it was a fair election, saying: “That wasn’t the purpose of the call. And that’s certainly not the position of the President, and of course he supports democracy and would hope for that.”
When pressed on Russia’s election Tuesday, Sanders said: “We don’t get to dictate how other countries operate. 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.”
But the White House has previously called out other nations over the issue of free and fair elections.
In a speech on Wednesday, to the Organization of American States, Vice President Mike Pence is expected to call for increased pressure on the Venezuelan regime to “hold free and fair elections.”
Last July, Trump highlighted the need to uphold democratic principles during a harsh rebuke of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
“The United States once again calls for free and fair elections and stands with the people of Venezuela in their quest to restore their country to a full and prosperous democracy,” Trump said at the time.
Putin’s growing appetite for power
The inconsistency in the Trump administration’s approach to Russia adds to uncertainty about how the West will respond to Putin’s growing willingness to exercise power beyond his borders.
In the last four years, Russia has annexed Crimea from Ukraine, meddled in a US election and helped turn the tide of the Syrian war in Bashar al-Assad’s favor.
Now it’s in a major diplomatic row with the UK, which blames Moscow for the poisoning of a former spy, his daughter, and a British policeman in the cathedral city of Salisbury. The UK’s top defense official said Thursday that Russia was “ripping up the international rulebook.”
Mattis said Tuesday that the US has “always been willing to cooperate with Russia where possible,” but said Moscow has “chosen to be a strategic competitor of late from what happened in the United Kingdom, to what we saw in Ukraine.”
That’s a message common to much of Trump’s administration and America’s European allies – but it is one rarely heard from the President’s lips – an omission that dampens the impact of Western policy toward Russia.
CNN’s Elizabeth Landers, Laura Koran and Dan Merica contributed to this report