Trump proposed Putin visit White House in March 20 phone call, Kremlin says

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President Trump proposed meeting Vladimir Putin at the White House in a March phone call, the Kremlin said Monday, a fresh revelation about a conversation that stirred controversy over Trump’s friendly tone toward the Russian leader amid mounting tensions with the West. 

After the March 20 phone call — in which Trump congratulated Putin for a reelection victory in a vote widely criticized as not free and fair — Trump said that the two leaders had discussed a possible meeting to discuss Syria, Ukraine, North Korea and “the arms race.” He did not mention any meeting venues at that time.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday that “a number of potential venues, including the White House,” were discussed for a summit. 

A Kremlin aide, Yury Ushakov, disclosed the White House invitation in comments to Russian journalists Monday. But he added that no preparations for such a meeting have been made, according to Russian news agencies.

Relations between Moscow and the West have been in a free fall since the nerve-agent poisoning of a former Russian double agent and his daughter in Britain on March 4. British authorities have linked the attack to Russia, setting in motion tit-for-tat actions that have included expulsions of Russian diplomats from United States, European Union countries and elsewhere.

The move comes in response to the March 26 expulsion of Russian diplomats from the U.S. and a number of other countries. (The Washington Post)

“If everything will be all right, I hope that the Americans will not back away from their own proposal to discuss the possibility of holding a summit,” Ushakov said, according to the state news agency RIA Novosti. “When our presidents spoke on the phone, it was Trump who proposed holding the first meeting in Washington, in the White House.” 

Ushakov’s claim adds new detail to a presidential phone call that drew broad criticism last month. Trump congratulated Putin even though many international observers described Putin’s reelection victory as a sham and despite the advice of White House advisers that he not offer congratulations. 

“As the president himself confirmed on March 20, hours after his last call with President Putin, the two had discussed a bilateral meeting in the ‘not-too-distant future’ at a number of potential venues, including the White House,” Sanders said in a statement after Ushakov’s comments. “We have nothing further to add at this time.”

After the March 20 phone call, Trump also drew condemnation at home and abroad for failing to raise the poisoning of the former spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter. The Kremlin denies it had anything to do with the nerve-agent attack. Skripal and his daughter Yulia remain hospitalized.

Relations between Moscow and Washington have taken a further plunge since that phone call, as the West has sought to punish Russia for the Skripal poisoning. The United States and Russia traded diplomat expulsions and consulate closings, while U.S. allies that expelled Russian diplomats in solidarity also faced in-kind retaliation from Moscow. 

Given the worsening environment, Kremlin aide Ushakov said Monday, “it is, of course, difficult to discuss the possibility of holding a summit,” Russia’s Interfax news agency reported. 

“I hope that the situation will allow us to discuss this issue,” Ushakov added, referring to the planning for a Trump-Putin summit, according to Interfax. “We believe that it is rather important and necessary for both countries and for the entire international community.”

Since Trump became president, the two have met at the Group of 20 summit in Germany in July and, briefly, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam in November. 

But a full-blown bilateral meeting has proved elusive, despite the Kremlin’s stated desire to make it happen, in part because of political head winds against Trump in Washington stemming from the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

Putin last visited the White House in 2005 for a meeting with President George W. Bush, who afterward described Russia as a “strong ally” in the war on terrorism. Dmitry Medvedev, during his term as Russian president, held White House talks with President Barack Obama in 2010, but Putin has not made another White House visit since he returned to the presidency in 2012.

In 2013, Obama canceled a planned Moscow summit with Putin after Russia took in Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency leaker facing espionage charges in the United States.

A White House visit, despite the deterioration in ties between the United States and Russia since Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, would probably be depicted in Russia as a victory for Putin, who has cast himself as a leader rebuilding the country’s global influence while reasserting Russian interests.

For Putin, a sit-down with Trump at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. would represent “a dream come true,” said Vladimir Frolov, an independent foreign policy analyst in Moscow.

“I think his entire strategy now is to get into a long private meeting with Trump and use his intel charms on him,” Frolov said of Putin, a former KGB agent. He added, however, that the Kremlin’s decision to disclose the detail about the White House invitation may also have been meant to embarrass Trump, which could provoke an adverse reaction from the U.S. president.

The Russian news media has followed the U.S. debate over Trump’s interactions with Putin, casting the criticism of Trump as too friendly with Putin as evidence of the U.S. establishment seeking to undermine its president’s efforts to pursue a sober, fair-minded Russia policy.

In his call to Putin on March 20 — two days after Putin won reelection to a fourth term — Trump left specific warnings from his national security advisers unheeded, officials familiar with the call told The Washington Post afterward. The officials had urged Trump to condemn the Skripal poisoning and included an instruction in his briefing book that said, “DO NOT CONGRATULATE.”

The Kremlin described the March 20 phone conversation as “constructive and businesslike” and said the possibility of a Putin-Trump meeting “received special attention.”

Some lawmakers, including Republicans, criticized Trump for the friendly tone of the call. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Trump’s congratulations for Putin “insulted every Russian citizen who was denied the right to vote in a free and fair election.”

“Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing,” Trump shot back on Twitter. “They can help solve problems with North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, ISIS, Iran and even the coming Arms Race.”

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