President Trump, contrary to advice given to him by his national security advisers, called Russian President Vladimir Putin and congratulated him on his election victory today. Putin won reelection Sunday, ensuring he will remain Russia’s president for the next six years.
Putin has been the head of the country since 1999, serving as either president or prime minister in that time. He captured 76.67% of the vote. His next closest competitor, millionaire communist Pavel Grudinin, won a little less than 12% of the vote. The results were never in doubt.
The President chose to ignore talking points given to him by his national security team which included the specific instructions, written in all caps on one of the briefing papers, “DO NOT CONGRATULATE.”
Asked about the call during the White House Press briefing, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said it wasn’t the U.S. Government’s place to criticize the elections of other countries. “We don’t get to dictate how other countries operate,” she said.
The President’s decision to call Putin drew criticism from many within the GOP. “The President can call whomever he chooses,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said today. “When I look at a Russian election, what I see is a lack of credibility in tallying the results. Calling him wouldn’t have been high on my list.”
Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, a frequent critic of the President’s dismissed Sanders’ remarks. “No, we certainly don’t dictate, but we certainly encourage and nudge and prod and try to spread democracy around there,” Flake said.
Calling Putin to congratulate him “would have been like me calling Fidel Castro and saying, ‘Congratulations on your election victory,’” he added.
Perhaps the harshest criticism came from the senior Senator from Arizona, John McCain, who said, “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,” he said.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s observer mission called the Russian election free but said it was marked by a clear level of censorship. Russia’s Central Election Commission “administered the election efficiently and openly” it said, “after intense efforts to promote turnout, citizens voted in significant numbers.”
But, it added, the election “took place in an overly controlled legal and political environment marked by continued pressure on critical voices.”
A vocal critic of Vladimir Putin’s, opposition leader Aexei Navalny, was barred from running in the election because of an embezzlement conviction many in Russia believe to be contrived. Navalny was arrested in January while attending a protest against Putin, which was organized to encourage Russians to boycott the election. He gained notoriety by publicizing reports about corruption among top Russian officials, using social media to bypass the State’s control of television.
In response to the notion being raised during a post-election press conference that he could be conceivably run again in 2030 if the Russian constitution wasn’t altered, Putin laughed. “I think what you are saying is quite funny,” he said to a reporter. “Do you think I will stay here till 100 years? No, no,” he added.
The President characterized the call as productive and said a meeting between the two leaders was in the offing. “We had a very good call,” he told reporters at the White House. “We will probably be meeting in the not-too-distant future to discuss the arms race, which is getting out of control.”
Trump has often characterized a good relationship with Russia as a positive and his administration has said Russia’s help in tackling global threats such as North Korea and ISIS is a boon, rather than a bane for the U.S.
But the call left some scratching their heads. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida wondered what warranted a congratulatory call from the President. “It’s a fake election. I don’t congratulate people for fake elections,” he said.