Trump warned not to congratulate Putin; he did so anywayThe Washington Post
March 21. 2018 8:22PM
WASHINGTON — President Donald 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.
The President’s conversation with Putin, which Trump called a “very good call,” prompted fresh criticism of his muted tone toward one of the United States’ biggest geopolitical rivals amid the ongoing special counsel investigation into Russia’s election interference and the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian officials.
Although the Trump administration has taken a tougher stance toward Russia recently — including new sanctions last week on some entities for election meddling and cyber attacks — the President has declined to forcefully join London in denouncing Moscow for the poisoning of Sergie Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury this month. They remain critically ill.
Trump told reporters that he had offered his well wishes on Putin’s new six-year term during a conversation on a range of topics, including arms control and the security situations in Syria and North Korea. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that Skripal’s case was not discussed.
Information on Syria and North Korea were also provided to the President in writing before the call, officials said.
“We’ll probably be meeting in the not-too-distant future,” Trump said of Putin, though Sanders emphasized that nothing was planned.
The White House press office declined to comment on the briefing materials given to Trump. Two people familiar with the notecards acknowledged that they included instructions not to congratulate Putin.
But a senior White House official emphasized that national security adviser H.R. McMaster did not mention the issue during a telephone briefing with the President, who was in the White House residence ahead of and during his conversation with Putin.
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.
Trump’s tone drew a rebuke from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who wrote on Twitter: “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.”
But Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, appeared less concerned, noting Trump has also offered congratulations to other leaders of more totalitarian states. “I wouldn’t read much into it,” Corker said.
Putin’s latest consolidation of power came in what foreign policy analysts said was a rigged election in which he got 76 percent of the vote against several minor candidates. 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 with his most prominent opponent barred from the ballot.
Ahead of Tuesday’s phone call, national security aides provided Trump with several handwritten notecards filled with talking points to guide his conversation, as is customary for calls with foreign leaders, according to the officials with knowledge of the call, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
The notecards are similar to the one Trump was photographed clutching during a White House meeting with students and parents after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., officials said.
Trump’s failure to raise Moscow’s alleged poisoning of the former Russian spy in Britain risked angering officials in London, who are trying to rally Britain’s closest allies to condemn the attack. Russia has denied involvement in the March 4 poisoning, but the attack has badly damaged British-Russian relations and British Prime Minister Theresa May last week announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats in retaliation.
Putin denied that Russia had any role and called the claim “nonsense.”
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.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also distanced himself Tuesday from Trump’s congratulatory remarks.
“The president can call whomever he chooses,” McConnell said at his weekly news conference Tuesday. “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.”
Trump has largely refrained from criticizing Putin amid the ongoing investigation into the 2016 election meddling by special counsel Robert Mueller III, who in February indicted 13 Russian nationals on conspiracy charges.