President Donald Trump said Tuesday he congratulated Russian President Vladimir Putin for winning reelection earlier this month, provoking a strong rebuke from GOP Sen. John McCain.
Speaking with reporters in the Oval Office, Trump said that he congratulated Putin — a figure who has loomed over his administration because of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election — on winning another term. The result of the election, however, was never in doubt, given Putin’s autocratic stranglehold on power.
Trump’s decision to congratulate Putin on his electoral win drew consternation from McCain who said that “an American president does not lead the free world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections.”
“And 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 added.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders later said that two key issues — Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and accusations that Russia used a nerve agent to poison a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom — likely did not come up during the call, but disagreed with McCain’s criticism.
“We don’t get to dictate how other countries operate. Putin has been elected in their country and it not something we can dictate to them how they operate,” Sanders said.
Trump did tell reporters that he would meet with Putin in the “not too distant future.”
“I had a call with President Putin and congratulated him on the victory, his electoral victory,” Trump said during his meeting with Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. “The call had to do also with the fact that we will probably get together in the not too distant future so that we can discuss arms, we can discuss the arms race.”
Trump said the call was “very good” and added that a meeting could focus on Ukraine, Syria, North Korea and other issues.
“So, I think probably we will be seeing president Putin in the not too distant future,” he said.
Sanders told reporters after the call that there are “no specific plans made at this time” for a possible meeting between Trump and Putin.
The official White House statement on the phone call said that the two leaders discussed “the state of bilateral relations and resolved to continue dialogue about mutual national security priorities and challenges” and the importance of “denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.”
Sanders was pressed on Trump’s call with Putin, but said that the White House believes maintaining a relationship with Putin is worth it, despite some outstanding issues.
“I don’t believe it came up on this specific call but it is something that we have spoken extensively about and continue to look at ways and steps forward to make sure it never happens again,” Sanders said of election meddling. She later said that she didn’t believe that Russia’s use of a nerve agent came up, either.
Trump is not the first commander in chief to call Putin to congratulate him on winning reelection. President Barack Obama called the Russian leader in 2012 and, according to a White House readout, congratulated him on winning his last reelection campaign.
Any interactions between Trump and Putin are closely watched given the ongoing special counsel investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. The issue has loomed over the administration since Trump took office last year and has infuriated the President.
Trump and Putin last met in Vietnam during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. The two did not hold a formal meeting, but they did informally talk a number of times during the two-day summit. The talks, while brief, looked friendly.
The two formally met in July at the G-20 in Hamburg, Germany. After the meeting, a diplomatic dust-up immediately broke out over whether Trump accepted Putin’s assurances there was no Russian involvement in the 2016 election.
The Kremlin also said on Tuesday that Trump congratulated Putin on his win during their call and the leaders spoke “in favor of developing practical cooperation in various areas, including in ensuring strategic stability and combating international terrorism. In particular they underlined the importance of coordinated efforts to limit an arms race.”