When Trump had his phone call with Putin on March 20th, it was just days after Putin cleared seventy-six per cent of the vote in a Presidential election that Western election observers said failed to offer voters a real choice. Most subsequent reports about the call focussed on the sensational revelation, in the Washington Post, that the President had disregarded the “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” talking point that his staff had prepared for him, especially once Trump fired the national-security adviser, H. R. McMaster, the day after the embarrassing leak. Trump’s invitation to Putin was another surprise twist that the White House did not reveal in its readout of the call. Instead, in what appeared to be an effort to embarrass the American President, Trump’s friendly overture to Putin was announced days later by the Kremlin, after the U.S. joined a host of European allies in expelling dozens of Russian diplomats in response to a deadly nerve-agent attack on British soil. Days after that, the Trump Administration imposed a tough new round of sanctions on leading Russian oligarchs closely tied to Putin. Amid the escalating tensions, a coveted White House invitation for Putin seemed wildly improbable, but the White House confirmed the Kremlin overture.
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 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. that Trump had signed off on. The President then exploded when the American tally of sixty expelled diplomats was announced and those of individual countries such as France and Germany were much lower, the Washington >Post later reported.
Europeans, for their part, were also shocked: here was the President of the United States not only refusing to take up America’s traditional leadership role but once again appearing to pull back from confronting Putin. When the Kremlin immediately put out the news of Trump’s invitation to Putin, it seemed to confirm that interpretation.
Weeks later, the incidents continue to resonate as all sides wonder whether Trump, with the newly installed Russia hawks John Bolton, at the National Security Council, and Mike Pompeo, at the State Department, would really follow through on the invitation. A senior Trump Administration official told me that National Security Council officials had been instructed by Trump to call the Russian Embassy in Washington and make clear that Trump personally wanted the Putin meeting to happen. Several former U.S. officials who follow Russia closely told me they believed that the President remained committed to the offer, despite little enthusiasm on his team. The Trump official told me that Pompeo, no Putin fan, is more or less resigned to the Presidential summit happening. “He is more of the view that, if it’s going to happen, let’s be prepared, let’s get what we can out of it.”
The Russians are certainly hoping so. They have dispatched an array of envoys in recent weeks to make the case around Washington for a summit, and Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s minister of foreign affairs, recently took the unusual step of describing Trump’s invitation in detail. “He returned to this topic a couple of times, so we let our American colleagues know that we do not want to impose, but we also do not want to be impolite, and that considering that President Trump made this proposal, we proceed from the position that he will make it concrete,” Lavrov said, according to an interview transcript posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Web site. When asked why Trump would do such a politically inflammatory thing given the allegations swirling around his campaign colluding with Russia, Lavrov quoted Trump’s tweets and statements that he simply wants to have “good relations” with Moscow. “We also hear this,” Lavrov said.
By the standards of previous Administrations, Trump has assembled a remarkably hawkish collection of advisers when it comes to Russia. Inside the George W. Bush Administration, the President himself and his team were divided on how to deal with Putin, with Vice-President Dick Cheney telling visitors that the new leader in the Kremlin was and always would be “K.G.B., K.G.B., K.G.B.,” and Bush himself never fully relinquishing the idea that he could work things out with “my friend Vladimir.” Barack Obama came to office pursuing a “reset” with Russia but was never sentimental about Putin, and, after Russia’s illegal 2014 annexation of Crimea and military destabilization of Ukraine, imposed a series of increasingly harsh sanctions—though advisers like Secretary of State John Kerry worked with Russia on some global issues, such as the Iran nuclear talks and Syria.
After the firings and reshufflings of recent months, Trump’s latest national-security team is uniformly hawkish on Moscow and has none of those uncertainties. “I’ve never seen us more unified on Russia than this team, in terms of its instincts, perspectives, world view,” Damon Wilson, a former National Security Council official in the George W. Bush Administration and now the executive vice-president of the Atlantic Council, told me. Few close observers believe that either Bolton or Pompeo is enthusiastic about the President’s outreach to Putin. “Bolton is not where the President is on Russia, and neither is Pompeo,” a senior Washington foreign-policy figure who has extensive Trump Administration contacts told me. Bolton, in fact, has been arguing for years that the United States should get tougher on Moscow, and pointedly lectured Trump in a Wall Street Journal column soon after Trump’s Inauguration to avoid the perils of early make-nice summitry with Putin. “The new president ought to strengthen sanctions, reassure NATO allies . . . and then have coffee with Vlad,” Bolton wrote. “Negotiate only from positions of strength.”
So far, Trump has heeded that advice, whether by intention or default, meeting Putin in person twice, only on the sidelines of world-leader summits, and not following through on his publicly stated desire to hold a one-on-one summit with the Russian leader he has often praised. But, if the last few months have proved anything, it’s that Trump feels increasingly liberated to disregard the advice of his top advisers when it conflicts with his own instincts—particularly when it comes to finding ways to put himself in the international spotlight. “Trump’s true feelings were reflected in that proposal: he still feels hemmed in from establishing this great relationship with Putin,” Alexander Vershbow, who served as Bush’s Ambassador to Russia during the early years of Putin’s rule, said. Given the escalating moves against Russia in recent weeks, Vershbow said that Russians are “increasingly despondent” regarding improved relations but “still have this hope that Trump can break loose from the shackles” and engage with Moscow. “It’s a pretty remote hope,” Vershbow added, but, then again, “Trump gives evidence of being out of step with his Administration all the time.”
As for the uncertain politics behind offering to meet Putin amid the Russiagate uproar, a Republican adviser frequently consulted by the President said he thinks it’s all about Trump’s desire to upstage his Presidential predecessors in both parties. “Trump has a similar view that the last three Presidents had, which is ‘All the problems related to Russia are the fault of my stupid predecessor,’ ” the adviser told me, “ ‘and, through the power of my personal charm and charisma, I will be able to get him to fall in line with us.’ ”
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