Trump administration vets blast him for claiming Putin will release US prisoner if he wins

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WASHINGTON – Former Trump administration national security officials are blasting the ex-president for interfering in delicate hostage negotiations over Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was imprisoned in Russia last year.

Donald Trump has promised that Gershkovich would be released upon his election, which veterans of his own White House say could delay the reporter's freedom and undermine U.S. democracy by encouraging Russia to hold Gershkovich until after the election to aid Trump's campaign. Russia has accused the journalist of spying, which his family, employer, and President Biden say is false.

In a campaign ad released Tuesday, Trump boasts that if he beats Biden in November Russia will promptly return Gershkovich.

“Evan Gershkovich, the reporter for the Wall Street Journal who is being held by Russia, will be released almost immediately after the election, but definitely before I assume office,” Trump says, talking directly into the camera and flanked by two American flags. “He will be home. He will be safe.”

Jun 13, 2023; New York City, New York, USA; Fans display a banner in support of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who has been detained by authorities in Russia during the third inning of the MLB game between the New York Mets and the New York Yankees at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 13, 2023; New York City, New York, USA; Fans display a banner in support of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who has been detained by authorities in Russia during the third inning of the MLB game between the New York Mets and the New York Yankees at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

“Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, will do that for me − and I don’t believe he’ll do it for anyone else,” Trump adds. “And we will be paying nothing. Biden likes to pay massive numbers. We will be paying nothing.”

That statement could signal to Putin that Trump wants to use the imprisoned reporter as a campaign issue.

“Trump's comments killed any negotiations to get (Gershkovich) released until after the election,” said Alexander Vindman, the former director for Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Russia on the White House’s National Security Council during the Trump administration.

Putin won’t release Gershkovich for free to anyone, including Trump, predicted Vindman, who also served as the political-military affairs officer for Russia for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and as an attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

Putin will only do it in “quid pro quo” for people he wants freed from prisons in the U.S. or allied countries, Vindman said.

“Trump,” Vindman added, “would likely meet Putin's wish list hostage swap demands to deliver on this brag.”

'So many things wrong with this'

Fiona Hill, another Russia expert on Trump’s National Security Council, said Trump’s comments undermine U.S. national security in a number of ways.

“There are so many things wrong with this,” said Hill, who said she worked on negotiations with Russia for the release of falsely imprisoned Americans during her time in the Trump White House.

“It’s classic braggadocio of him, claiming to have a special relationship with Putin," Hill said. "But it's playing favorites,” she added, with the potential release of one detainee, Gershkovich coming at the expense of other Americans unjustly detained in Russia like former Marine Paul Whelan.

Potentially more serious, Hill said, is that Trump’s own claims show “that he’s looking at this as a kind of a personal favor, rather than an issue related to U.S. national security. It begs the question of whether he’s been told this by Putin somehow behind the scenes? Is Russia having outreach again with a putative candidate? This gets us back to 2016 all over again.”

Echoes of Trump's 2016 'Russia, if you're listening' invitation

Hill, Vindman and other Trump watchers say Trump’s new claim has echoes of a comment he made publicly during the 2016 campaign asking Russia to find rival Hillary Clinton's missing emails.

Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing," Trump said on July 27, 2016. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let's see if that happens.”

That was followed almost immediately by a Kremlin hack of the Democratic National Committee’s email servers and subsequent leak of embarrassing Clinton campaign emails.

After Trump’s election but before he took office, one of his top national security advisors, retired Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, also had back-channel discussions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak while the Obama administration was urgently investigating – and sanctioning – Moscow for its interference in the U.S. presidential election to help Trump.

According to federal law, any private citizen who tries “to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States” faces criminal charges that are punishable by up to three years in prison.

Trump tapped Flynn as his first White House National Security Adviser but fired him after the back-channel negotiations became public. Flynn ultimately pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about the nature of his discussions with Kislyak and agreed to cooperate in the ongoing Russia investigation before being pardoned by Trump.

What does Trump say about his new claim?

Trump campaign spokesman Steve Cheung told USA TODAY that Trump is merely comparing his ability to get things done on a global stage with his likely rival for the White House, President Joe Biden.

“While in office, President Trump had a strong record of bringing detained Americans home without having to pay or compromise our nation's principles to do so,” Cheung said. “Evan's situation and inability of Biden to secure a release is a demonstration of national weakness that is offensive to President Trump and those of us who believe in security for American citizens.”

Cheung declined to answer specifics about Trump’s claim, including whether he has had any contact with Russian officials, or why he thinks he will be successful where protracted and often intense Biden administration negotiations have not.

But, Cheung said, “President Trump’s commitment to a release is because he wants the world to respect our nation again.”

What do Russia and Biden say?

In recent months, Trump has made similar claim about bringing Gershkovich home on his social media platform Truth Social and in an interview with Time magazine.

In his Time interview, Trump said his relationship with Putin would allow him to be more successful in freeing the reporter. “I get along very well with Putin,” Trump said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov has said Putin has had no contact with Trump. Russia’s discussions with Washington about Gershkovich and other Americans detained in the country are being conducted “through a specialized closed channel,” Peskov told the New York Times.

“I know the United States administration is indeed taking vigorous steps to free him,” Putin told foreign news agencies in St. Petersburg on Wednesday. “But such issues are not resolved through the media. They like a quiet, calm, professional approach and dialogue between intelligence agencies. And, of course, they should be resolved only on the basis of reciprocity.”

Biden White House and campaign officials criticized Trump for interfering in U.S. negotiations over Gershkovich and for claiming that he turned down a deal to free Whelan, who is serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia on what U.S. officials say are false espionage charges.

"Donald Trump doesn't give a damn about the innocent Americans unjustly imprisoned by Vladimir Putin," Biden campaign spokesperson T.J. Ducklo said. "Trump has called journalists 'enemies of the people' and pledged to imprison reporters whose coverage he doesn't like – not all that dissimilar to what's happening right now to Evan Gershkovich in Russia. In fact, when he was in office, Trump passed up an opportunity to bring Paul Whelan home, who was detained on Trump’s watch. For Donald Trump, these wrongfully imprisoned Americans are political weapons and props to use for his own gain  -- for Joe Biden, they are human beings whose loved ones and family members he has spent time with. Their release remains an urgent priority, just like it was for the 60 Americans who were wrongfully detained or taken hostage that President Biden has already brought home since taking office."

Like Whelan, the Biden administration has designated Gershkovich as being “wrongfully detained,” which means the U.S. considers the charges against him fabricated in order to use him as a political hostage or negotiating chip.

The Wall Street Journal, which has also been lobbying hard for Gershkovich’s release, declined to comment when asked about Trump’s claims.

It's Trump's privilege 'if he does win re-election'

John Hardie, deputy director, Russia Program at the nonpartisan Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Trump has the right to claim he'll be able to bring Gershkovich home.

"It's a free country, so I guess it's okay" for Trump to make such claims, Hardie said. "I don't think it's necessarily accurate. He's said a lot of things about being able to get deals, whether it's on a settlement to the war in Ukraine or this."

“But in my opinion, if he is communicating with somebody in Russia about a potential hostage, and I don't know that he is, he should not be doing that. He should let the current president run that,” Hardie said. “And if he does win reelection, then it'll be his privilege to try to handle that issue as he sees fit.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump admin alums attack his claim Russia will release US prisoner