President Donald Trump declared “nobody has been tougher on Russia” during a meeting with the heads of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to the White House on Tuesday, while also repeating his desire to have a good relationship with President Vladimir Putin.
The declaration comes as tension between Russia and the United States has ratcheted up in recent weeks and as Trump met with the Baltic leaders who have grown deeply skeptical of Putin in recent years.
Trump, throughout the Baltic leaders’ time at the White House, maintained that he had come down hard on Russia for a series of transgressions. But even his tough talk contained conciliatory remarks about Putin, a familiar posture for the President.
“Getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing,” Trump said during a luncheon with the three leaders. “Now maybe we will and maybe we won’t. Probably nobody’s been tougher on Russia than Donald Trump.”
Trump added that “just about everyone agrees” getting along with Russia is a good thing “except very stupid people.”
A reporter asked if Russian President Vladimir Putin is “a friend or a foe, to which the President said “we’ll find out.”
“I’ll let you know,” Trump said. “There will be a time when I’ll let you know. You’re going to find out very quickly.”
During a joint news conference with the Baltic leaders – Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, Latvian President Raimonds Vējonis and Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė – Trump made his first public comments about the 60 Russian diplomats that the United States expelled from the country last month.
“We did 60. There is nobody been tougher on Russia,” Trump said.
Still, he added: “I think I could have a very good relationship with Russia and with President Putin. And if I did that would be a great thing. And there is a lot a great possibility that that won’t happen. Who knows.”
Baltic states and Russia
Trump has been critical of NATO members – such as Latvia and Lithuania – which had not met their 2% defense spending annual benchmark for the group.
But the three Baltic states have begun to worry about the threat posed by Russia and, like other NATO members, have pledged to increase their defense spending in the face of Russian aggression, especially the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine by Russia.
Trump on Tuesday commended the leaders for their contributions to NATO and asked Lithuania’s Grybauskaitė, “Has Donald Trump made a difference on NATO?”
“This is a very risky question,” Trump joked.
Grybauskaitė responded: “We expect together with the United States to go ahead with deep reforms of NATO, especially on decision-making, on decisiveness, on the denial that we expect to see from Russia in case of aggression.”
Russia has loomed large over the Trump administration for much of the President’s time in office as special counsel Robert Mueller investigates the country’s meddling in the 2016 election and any collusion between Trump’s orbit of supporters and Russian operatives.
Tension between the United States and Russia reached a high point under Trump last week when Russia expelled 60 US diplomats and closed the US Consulate in St. Petersburg in response to the United States expelling the same number of Russian diplomats and closing their Seattle consulate. The US decision was made after the US and United Kingdom government blamed Moscow for the poisoning of a former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, on British soil on March 4.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to remove Estonia from a list of countries that had not been meeting their NATO defense spending annual benchmarks.