Defying pressure that includes some of his White House staff and GOP Congressional leaders, Donald Trump pushes ahead with his plans for an alliance with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
On Thursday, amid the storm over his support for Putin at Monday’s Helsinki Summit, Trump doubled down on his bet with the announcement of an invitation for the Russian leader to visit the White House this autumn.
The development stunned key officials still trying to cope with the fallout from Monday, when Trump chose Putin over US intelligence agencies regarding Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election. Trump declined to make any criticism of Putin or Russian policies and actions, instead attacking the FBI, Democrats, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, one of those whom Trump has implicitly defied with the support of Putin, reacted with surprise when told of the invitation as he spoke at a high-profile conference in Aspen, Colorado:
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats informed on stage at Aspen Security Forum that the Trump administration has invited Vladimir Putin to the White House.
— ABC News (@ABC) July 19, 2018
Trump has spent the week taking half-steps back from Monday’s performance but then returning to his preferred line of partnership with Putin.
On Tuesday, he read a prepared statement that he “misspoke” when he backed Putin over the US intelligence community — declaring he meant to say “wouldn’t” rather than “would” — but immediately watered down the text by adding ad hoc that “other people” might have carried out the 2016 hacking and dissemination of information to damage Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. He also crossed out a line about seeking to bring to justice 12 Russian military intelligence officers indicted last week for the stealing and distribution of the anti-Clinton material.
On Wednesday, he appeared to be holding the pro-Putin line with a blunt “No” when asked if he believed in the Russian election interference. Then came another realignment in a Wednesday night TV interview — this time not with his favored Fox outlet — in which he declared, “I let [Putin] know we can’t have this. We’re not going to have it, and that’s the way it’s going to be.”
Then came Thursday’s overture to Putin with the offer of the White House visit. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders broke the news on Twitter, saying the invitation will be extended through National Security Advisor John Bolton:
In Helsinki, @POTUS agreed to ongoing working level dialogue between the two security council staffs. President Trump asked @Ambjohnbolton to invite President Putin to Washington in the fall and those discussions are already underway.
— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) July 19, 2018
Coats’ reaction indicated that US agencies were not consulted. That in turn widened the split between the Director of National Intelligence and Trump.
Coats has warned that the Russian cyber-threat, including intervention in 2018 mid-term Congressional elections, is as great as that of terrorists before 9-11. On Monday, after the Helsinki press conference he issued a statement — without consulting the White House — that reaffirmed the conclusion of Moscow’s election interference.
After his surprise on Thursday, he assessed Trump’s invitation to Putin: “If he had asked me how that ought to be conducted. I would have suggested a different way. But that’s not my role; that’s not my job. So, it is what it is.”
In Thursday morning tweets, Trump foreshadowed the invitation while launching another attack on his preferred enemy — journalists:
The Summit with Russia was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media. I look forward to our second meeting so that we can start implementing some of the many things discussed, including stopping terrorism, security for Israel, nuclear……..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 19, 2018
….proliferation, cyber attacks, trade, Ukraine, Middle East peace, North Korea and more. There are many answers, some easy and some hard, to these problems…but they can ALL be solved!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 19, 2018
A Signal from Congress
Trump had appeared to be on the defensive with one of the first displays of resistance from Repubicans in Congress.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — after consultation with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly — joined the pushback of Monday’s summit with the backing of the intelligence agencies’ conclusions over the 2016 election and the assertion that Russia is not an American ally.
Trump presented a further challenge with his enthusiastic support of Putin’s “offer” to interrogate 11 American citizens, including former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, in return for American observation of Russian questioning of the 12 indicted military intelligence officers.
Putin’s move is part of a Kremlin effort to dismantle the Magnitsky Act, which mandates sanctions for Russian human rights abuses. The 11 Americans are all connected with Bill Browder, the UK-based financier who is a driving force behind the Act, or are prominent critics of the Kremlin’s policies and propaganda.
After heated criticism across media, the Senate voted unanimously against any extradition of Americans for interrogation by Moscow. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave support in an interview to be broadcast Friday: “The administration is not going to send, force Americans to travel to Russia to be interrogated by Vladimir Putin and his team.”
The Justice Department offered its own signal on Thursday, setting out its plan to counter cyber-attacks and foreign influence campaigns, including in elections.
Kremlin Maneuvers Trump Into Position
Meanwhile the Kremlin continued to manipulate Monday’s Trump-Putin meeting, in which there were no officials present.
Having said earlier this week that the session yielded military “agreements” — an assertion which surprised all US agencies, including the Pentagon — the Kremlin asserted on Thursday that Trump had been receptive to a Putin proposal for a “referendum” on Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Russia has been seeking to push back international sanctions that were imposed over the annexation, considered illegal by much of the international community, as well as over Moscow’s support of separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The White House did not respond yesterday. A spokesman for the National Security Council said, “Presidents Trump and Putin discussed a wide range of national security issues in Helsinki. The US position on Ukraine remains the same.”
But the Pentagon was rattled. Before the Helsinki Summit, military officials pressed the NSC for Trump’s proposed talking points and received no response.
Yesterday, Gen. Joseph Votel said at a news conference, “We have received no further direction than we’ve currently been operating under.”
Votel is head of Central Command, which has responsibility for Syria, where Russia is propping up the Assad regime.