‘DO NOT CONGRATULATE’ advisers told Trump in capital letters before Putin call. It was the first thing he did
Trump was also reminded by advisers to condemn Putin for the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the UK, yet he failed to mention the case
US President Donald Trump did not follow specific warnings from his national security advisers when he congratulated Russian President Vladimir Putin on his reelection, including a section in his briefing materials in all-capital letters stating “DO NOT CONGRATULATE,” according to officials familiar with Tuesday’s 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 US 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’s 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 cyberattacks – the president has declined to forcefully join London in denouncing Moscow for the poisoning of Sergei 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.
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
“We’ll probably be meeting in the not-too-distant future,” Trump said of Putin, though Sanders emphasised 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 emphasised 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.
The president’s tone drew a rebuke from Republican Senator John McCain, 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 fellow Republican Senator Bob Corker, 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 per cent 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.
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 about McCain’s criticism, Sanders noted that the leaders of France and Germany also called Putin this week and pointed to former president Barack Obama, who congratulated Putin on an election victory in 2012.
“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.”
Trump’s applause of Putin’s victory was in line with other congratulatory calls he has made, including to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for winning a much-disputed referendum that increased his already autocratic powers and to China’s President Xi Jinping for his “extraordinary elevation” after Xi last month engineered the Communist Party’s elimination of presidential term limits.
“I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day,” Trump said later at a closed door speech.