President 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’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 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.
The president’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.