WASHINGTON — The White House on Tuesday defended President Trump’s decision to congratulate Russian President Vladimir Putin on winning reelection, saying that Washington has no business criticizing the way other countries pick their leaders and wants a more constructive relationship with Moscow.
“We don’t get to dictate how other countries operate,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters. “What we do know is Putin has been elected in their country, and that’s not something that we can dictate to them — how they operate.”
Sanders continued, “We can only focus on the freeness and the fairness of our elections, something we 100 percent fully support, and something we’re going to continue to do — everything we can to protect to make sure bad actors don’t have the opportunity to impact them in any way.”
The spokeswoman also said that Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and allegations that Moscow used a nerve agent in the attempted assassination of a Russian double agent on British soil did not come up in the telephone conversation.
“We want to continue to have a dialogue with Russia, continue to talk about some of the shared interests we have, whether it’s North Korea, Iran — and particularly, as the president noted today — slowing the tensions when it comes to an arms race,” Sanders said.
Official Russian results gave Putin 76.7 percent of the vote in an election that international observers described as tainted by unfair pressure on opposition candidates and the exclusion of one prominent opponent of the former KGB official. “Choice without real competition, as we have seen here, is not real choice,” the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said in a report on the election.
The conciliatory tone from the White House podium came days after Sanders called the nerve-agent attack an “outrage,” and Trump appeared to accept Britain’s conclusion that Moscow was behind it. And Washington last week announced sanctions against Russian entities and individuals.
Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., a frequent and fierce Putin critic, blasted Trump’s decision to congratulate the Russian leader.
“An American president does not lead the Free World by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections,” McCain said in a statement. “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.”
Trump supporters noted Tuesday that former President Barack Obama had placed a congratulatory telephone call to Putin after elections in March 2012. At the time, Obama had seemingly snubbed the Russian leader by waiting a week before placing the call — but also publicly said he wanted better bilateral relations. At the time, Russia had already invaded the country of Georgia but it would be years before it annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region or interfered in the U.S. presidential election.
Before Sanders spoke, Trump himself told a reporter that he had “a very good call” with Putin and had “congratulated him on the victory — his electoral victory.”
Trump said he and Putin will “probably be meeting in the not-too-distant future” to discuss arms control, Ukraine, Syria, and North Korea. Asked about the timing of such a summit, Sanders said nothing was in the planning stages.
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