Donald Trump congratulates Vladimir Putin on re-election, gets blowback from Republicans and top Democrats on Hill

Washington: President Donald Trump called Russian president Vladimir Putin on Tuesday to congratulate him on his re-election, drawing bruising criticism from members of his own party, including a leading senator who scorned the election as a "sham" and top Democrats on the Hill.  Trump also said he and Putin might meet "in the not too distant future" to discuss the arms race and other matters.

File image of US president Donald J Trump. AP

File image of US president Donald J Trump. AP

What they didn't discuss on Tuesday was noteworthy as well: Trump did not raise Russia's meddling in the US elections or its suspected involvement in the recent poisoning of a former spy in England.

"An American president does not lead the free world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections," said Senator John McCain, Republican from Arizona, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee and has pressed the Trump administration to respond aggressively to Russia's interference in the US presidential election.

Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a frequent Trump critic, called the president's call "odd." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Trump "can call whomever he chooses" but noted that calling Putin "wouldn't have been high on my list."

According to a report in The Hill, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said he wouldn’t have called Putin to congratulate him on his reelection, referring to the Russian leader as a “criminal.”

“I think Putin is a criminal. What he did in Georgia, what he did in Ukraine, what he did in Baltic, what he’s done in London poisoning people with active nerve gas, that’s a criminal act. I wouldn’t have a conversation with a criminal,” Grassley said when asked about Trump's call.

Senate Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi chastised Trump on Twitter:

California representative Adam Schiff, Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee, also slammed Trump on social media. He wrote on Twitter: "The president calls Putin — not to condemn him for using a nerve agent in Britain or interfering in our election — but to congratulate him on winning an election in which his top opponent was prohibited from running. No way to lead the free world."

At the state department, spokeswoman Heather Nauert said it was "no surprise" that Putin was re-elected, commenting that some people were paid to turn out to vote and Opposition leaders were intimidated or jailed.

She also cited a preliminary report by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe that said Russia's election took place in an overly controlled environment that lacked an even playing field for all contenders. Her comments were notably tougher on Russia than those coming from the White House.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended Trump's call, and noted that President Barack Obama made a similar call at the time of Putin's last electoral victory. "We don't get to dictate how other countries operate," Sanders said.

'I suspect we'll probably meet'

The action and reaction fit a Trump White House pattern of declining to chide authoritarian regimes for undemocratic practices. Trump himself has long been reluctant to publicly criticise Putin. He said that during their hoped-for meeting the two men would likely discuss Ukraine, Syria and North Korea, among other things. "I suspect that we'll probably be meeting in the not too distant future to discuss the arms race, to discuss the arms race, which is getting out of control, but we will never allow anybody to have anything even close to what we have," Trump said.

Russia has received global condemnation after Britain blamed Moscow for the recent nerve agent attack that sickened Sergei Skripal and his daughter. Russia has denied the accusation. Trump's call came at a period of heightened tensions between the two nations after the White House imposed sanctions on Russia for its interference in the 2016 U.S. election and other "malicious cyberattacks." Sanders insisted that the administration has scolded Putin at the appropriate times.

"We've been very clear in the actions that we've taken that we're going to be tough on Russia, particularly when it comes to areas that we feel where they've stepped out of place." The Kremlin said in a statement that Trump and Putin spoke about a need to "coordinate efforts to limit the arms race" and for closer cooperation on strategic stability and counterterrorism.

"Special attention was given to considering the issue of a possible bilateral summit," the Kremlin statement said. In addition, the two presidents expressed satisfaction with the apparent easing of tensions over North Korea's weapons program, according to the Kremlin.

No details were released about the timing or location of a possible meeting, which would be their third since Trump took office in January 2017. They met on the sidelines of an international summit in Germany last summer and again more informally at another gathering of world leaders in Vietnam in November.

The presidents "agreed to develop further bilateral contacts, taking into account changes in the US state department," the Kremlin statement said in a reference to Trump's decision to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Russia has repeatedly said it hoped for better ties with the US under Trump.

Other world leaders congratulate Putin

Putin received calls from a number of other foreign leaders, including French president Emmanuel Macron, Chinese president Xi Jinping, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. Many others, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, sent congratulatory telegrams.

The White House said Monday that it was "not surprised by the outcome" of Sunday's presidential election in Russia and that no congratulatory call was planned. Trump continues to grapple with the shadow of the ongoing investigation into whether his campaign colluded with Russian officials during the 2016 election that sent him to the White House.

Last month, Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian individuals and three organisations on charges of interfering in the election. Three of Trump's associates — former national security advisor Michael Flynn, deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates and campaign aide George Papadopoulos — pleaded guilty to lying to investigators and agreed to cooperate. Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort pleaded not guilty to a variety of money laundering and other criminal charges.

With inputs from AP

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Updated Date: Mar 21, 2018 22:01:52 IST

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