President Trump recounted for reporters on Tuesday his “very good call” to congratulate newly reelected President Vladimir Putin, drawing a searing blast from Sen. John McCain, who said Trump had “insulted every Russian citizen who was denied the right to vote in a free and fair election.”
“An American president does not lead the Free World by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections,” McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a statement and on his Twitter account.
News of the Trump-Putin call came first from the Kremlin — foreign governments often disclose contacts with Trump before the White House, and with more information — prompting reporters to question the president about the call during a brief session in the Oval Office.
“We had a very good call,” Trump said, “and I suspect that we’ll be meeting in the not-too-distant future to discuss the arms race, which is getting out of control.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders offered little clarification about a future meeting of the two presidents. “There are no specific plans made at this time,” she told reporters.
Trump spoke to reporters as an Oval Office visitor, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, looked on. His conversation with Putin came as the president is coming under increasing and widespread criticism for his refusal to confront Putin about Russia’s hacking and disinformation efforts to destabilize U.S. politics and, more recently, about its alleged assassination attempt in Britain using a military-grade nerve agent against Russian expatriates there.
Though some Republicans have joined the criticism of Trump’s rapport with Putin, few have been as outspoken as McCain, the longtime Senate Armed Services Committee chairman who is undergoing treatment for brain cancer. More typical of Republican reaction was a comment from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who was noncommittal on Trump’s call to Putin, saying, “The president can call whomever he chooses.”
Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, implicitly rebuked Trump on Twitter, writing: “Putin does not deserve congratulations for his sham reelection. He made the outcome inevitable by silencing and disqualifying any credible opposition.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is McCain’s close friend but less publicly critical of Trump, echoed McCain’s critique of Putin’s reelection on Sunday without mentioning Trump. He tweeted: “Congratulations to Russian President Putin on his Fake Victory in the Fake Election. Heaven help the 25% who didn’t vote for him!”
Putin was reelected on Sunday with more than 77% of the vote against a weak field of opposition candidates.
Trump told reporters that he and Putin discussed matters related to North Korea, Syria and Ukraine. He made no mention of Russia’s election meddling or its alleged attack in Britain March 4.
Later, asked whether Trump raised the subject of Moscow’s U.S. election interference, Sanders said, “I don’t believe it came up.”
Sanders sidestepped a question from reporters about whether the Russian election was free and fair. “We don’t get to dictate how other countries operate,” Sanders said.
Asked about McCain’s criticism, Sanders said the administration is “tough when necessary” on Russia, but must maintain a dialogue with Moscow.
Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats because of the nerve-agent attack, and Putin retaliated in kind. The United States has not taken similar action against Russia for the attack, though the Trump administration last week sanctioned 19 individuals and five entities for their roles in the 2016 campaign meddling.
The administration also officially joined Britain, France and Germany to condemn the nerve-agent attack. Trump has not personally weighed in, however.