President Trump unexpectedly invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit Washington this fall, the White House announced Thursday, just after he belatedly rejected Putin’s unprecedented request to interrogate a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow and other Americans.
The announcement of the invitation came just three days after Trump’s much-criticized summit with Putin in Helsinki, Finland, and as Trump's director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, was describing in an interview televised live on the major cable news networks the "undeniable" threat of Russian cyberattacks and his fear of a “cyber 9/11.”
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said "discussions are underway" with Russia about a summit in Washington. The political risks of a visit from Putin, amid a special counsel’s investigation of his government’s interference in the 2016 election and just ahead of elections for Congress, were underscored by Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii: “Late October would be great for us,” he tweeted.
The developments came as Trump tried for a third straight day to answer critics of his Helsinki performance, by taking a tougher line with Putin than he did when they met. The president’s decision not to allow Russia to interrogate a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, and some other Americans, as Putin proposed during their summit, came after a bipartisan firestorm that he was even considering the idea.
“It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it,” Sanders said in a statement.
Putin had floated the idea of the interrogations as part of a swap: He would allow 12 Russian operatives indicted last week in the special counsel’s investigation of Moscow’s election interference to be questioned, but by Russian officials with U.S. investigators present — and only if the U.S. gave Russia access to a dozen Americans it accuses of crimes, including the ambassador to Russia under President Obama, McFaul.
In her statement, Sanders expressed hope that despite Trump’s belated rejection of Putin’s request, he “will have the 12 identified Russians come to the United States to prove their innocence or guilt.”
Trump, as he stood beside Putin at their summit, had labeled the Russian leader’s proposal an “incredible offer.” On Wednesday, Sanders confirmed that the president was considering the idea, provoking broad outrage across Washington.
Yet the State Department on Wednesday dismissed Russia’s allegations against McFaul and the others as “absurd.” Republicans as well as Democrats objected that Trump hadn’t immediately rejected Putin’s request, signaling that agreeing to such a proposal could be a red line for Congress.
“Under no circumstances should #Putin officials ever be allowed to come into the U.S. & ‘question’ Americans on their list,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) wrote in a tweet Thursday, hours before the White House announced Trump’s decision.
That decision came just after Trump met at the White House with Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo. Pompeo had strongly opposed the idea of allowing Russia access to the Americans, telling the Christian Broadcasting Network on Thursday, "That's not going to happen.”
Even after the announcement, in a rebuke of the president, the Republican-controlled Senate voted 98-0 for a nonbinding resolution opposing the "making available of current and former diplomats, officials, and members of the Armed Forces of the United States for questioning by the government of Vladimir Putin."
Afterward, McFaul tweeted, “Bipartisanship is not dead yet in the US Senate. Thank you all for your support.”
The new dispute between Trump and Putin over the issue came as the two leaders otherwise offered remarkably similar takes on their summit, both portraying it as a success and attacking American media and Trump adversaries as standing in the way of U.S.-Russia cooperation.
Early Thursday, Trump tweeted that the summit “was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media.”
Trump said that the media “are pushing so recklessly hard and hate the fact that I’ll probably have a good relationship with Putin.” He went so far as to say that the media badly wants “a confrontation that could lead to war.”
Putin, in his first public comments about the summit, told Russian diplomats in a speech Thursday that relations with the United States had been “in some ways worse than during the Cold War” but his meeting with Trump put the two nations on “the path to positive change.”
“It is important that at last a full-scale meeting took place that allowed talking directly, and it was generally successful,” Putin said, according to Russian state news agencies.
However, there are “forces in the United States that are ready to sacrifice Russian-American relations for their ambitions in the domestic political struggle,” Putin added.
That seemed clearly an echo of Trump’s own complaints about the political cloud over his presidency: the special counsel’s investigation of Russia’s election interference and possible Trump campaign complicity.
Both leaders have said that their private, two-hour conversation yielded agreements in various policy areas, though by Thursday, the White House and State and Defense departments had been unable to provide details, with many officials professing to be in the dark themselves.
Even the director of national intelligence, former Sen. Dan Coats, acknowledged that he doesn’t know what took place between the two presidents, and said he opposed their meeting alone.
“That is the president's prerogative,” Coats said in his televised interview Thursday. “If he had asked me how that ought to be conducted, I would have suggested a different way.”
Asked if Putin might have recorded the meeting, he said, “That risk is always there.”
Coats, speaking at the Aspen Security Forum, also said that he “wished” Trump hadn’t initially accepted Putin’s denial of election interference. After the joint Trump-Putin news conference in Helsinki, Coats immediately issued an unusual statement of his own; at Aspen he said he did so “to correct the record” — an extraordinary assertion by an aide to a president.
He expressed some satisfaction with Trump’s subsequent statement on Tuesday that he accepted the intelligence community’s findings that Russia undermined the election campaign, but said he wished the president hadn’t added that “others” might have been involved as well. That suggestion is unsupported by intelligence evidence.
Amid Coats’ interview by NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell, she broke the news to him of Trump’s invitation to Putin. Coats showed his surprise and said, “OK. That’s going to be special.”
Before the news of the Putin invitation, Trump stated in two Twitter messages early Thursday that he looks forward “to our second meeting so that we can start implementing some of the many things discussed.” He listed stopping terrorism, security for Israel, nuclear proliferation, cyberattacks, trade, Ukraine, Middle East peace and North Korea.
“They can ALL be solved!” he wrote.
Neither country has offered any specifics about particular agreements or future plans for bilateral collaboration. Some congressional Democrats have suggested subpoenaing the American translator — only the presidents’ respective interpreters were in the room for their initial meeting — to solve the mystery of what they discussed.
Republicans, who on the whole have been deferential toward Trump, were quick to criticize him after he stood beside Putin and accepted the Russian’s denial of election interference over the unanimous conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies.
While some Republicans eased up on Trump following his subsequent partial reversal, party leaders suggested they would consider additional sanctions on Russia amid ongoing concerns that it is attempting to interfere with the looming midterm election.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Thursday that he has directed two Senate committees to offer recommendations for measures “that could respond to or deter Russian malign behavior.”
FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, also speaking at the Aspen conference, an annual gathering of national security experts in Colorado, reiterated his belief in the conclusions about Russian election interference and even hinted that he has considered resigning.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, speaking at the same conference, also acknowledged that she “agrees with” the U.S. intelligence findings. But she dismissed the idea that Putin, who acknowledged Monday that he wanted Trump to beat Hillary Clinton in 2016, did so on her boss’ behalf — as the intelligence agencies have concluded.
“I haven’t seen any evidence that the attempt to interfere in our election infrastructure was to favor a particular political party,” Nielsen said.
Also at the Aspen event, Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein announced a new initiative regarding future foreign election interference. The Justice Department would not only aggressively prosecute perpetrators, he said, but also publicize disinformation efforts. “Exposing schemes to the public is an important way to neutralize them,” he said. “The American people have a right to know if foreign governments are targeting them with propaganda.”
While Cabinet officials are wary of angering Trump, Republicans appear to be walking a political tightrope, responding to a potential national security issue but careful not to upset the president or his most loyal supporters, whose votes will be crucial to Republicans’ chances in November.
A new CBS News poll Thursday showed that only about a third of Americans approve of Trump’s handling of relations with Russia. Yet 68% of Republicans approve, illustrating the bind that GOP elected officials are in.