WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump congratulated Russian leader Vladmir Putin on his recent re-election in a Tuesday phone call, and said the two leaders would likely meet “in the not too distant future to discuss the arms race, which is getting out of control.”
“We had a very good call, Trump told reporters at the White House on Tuesday, adding that a potential meeting between the two leaders would likely include talks on “Ukraine and Syria and North Korea and various other things.”
The president’s call came a day after Putin, in a victory speech, said he had no desire to “accelerate an arms race.” Trump, speaking to reporters, said America’s military strength would never be outmatched, saying “we will never allow anybody to have anything even close to what we have.”
Not mentioned in the phone call, according to White House officials, were questions surrounding the fairness and legitimacy of Russia’s electoral process. International elections observers have labeled the election a “sham,” noting that Putin’s most competitive opponent was barred from the ballot and monitors observed widespread voting irregularities at precincts throughout the country. Putin won with more than 76 percent of the Russian vote.
“We don’t get to dictate how other countries operate,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at Tuesday’s press briefing when asked if the White House believed Russia held a free and fair election. “We can only focus on the freeness and fairness of our elections.”
The president also did not discuss Russian cyberattacks against the U.S. and meddling in the 2016 election that prompted the Trump administration to impose a series of sanctions against more than 20 Russian nationals and entities last week, and Trump did not bring up the recent nerve gas poisoning of a former Russian spy in Salisbury, England, according to White House officials. The poisoning prompted Trump to join the leaders of the United Kingdom, Germany and France in issuing a joint statement condemning the attack last week.
White House officials, in a statement summarizing the call, said the Trump and Putin “resolved to continue dialogue about mutual national security priorities and challenges.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman of the Senate Arms Services committee, criticized Trump’s congratulatory call, saying “an American president does not lead the free world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections.”
“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 to determine their country’s future, including the countless Russian patriots who have risked so much to protest and resist Putin’s regime,” McCain said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, speaking to reporters on Tuesday, said Putin’s re-election mirrored “the elections they used to have in almost every communist country where whoever the dictator was at the moment always got a huge percentage of the vote. So calling him wouldn’t have been high on my list.”
Asked specifically about McCain’s statement, Sanders said Trump “has maintained that it’s important for us to have a dialogue with Russia so that we can focus on some areas of shared interests,” and said the administration is “going to continue to be tough on them.”
Sanders also noted that Germany and France had also reached out to Putin after his victory, and said former President Barack Obama also called Putin after his 2012 win.
“These are conversations that sometimes take place,” Sanders said. “Certainly, the president finds there to be an importance in having that dialogue with Russia so that we can talk about some of the big problems that face the world.”