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‘That’s going to be special’: Tensions rise as Trump invites Putin to Washington

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 7/20/2018 Shane Harris, Felicia Sonmez, John Wagner

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The White House announced Thursday that Vladimir Putin has been invited to Washington this fall, even as leaders in Washington tried to fully understand what happened when President Trump and the Russian leader met earlier this week in Helsinki.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced the planned visit in a tweet, saying that national security adviser John Bolton extended the invitation and that “discussions are already underway.”

As the late afternoon tweet landed, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats was on stage at the Aspen Security Forum in the middle of an interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, who broke the news to him. Coats, clearly surprised, took a deep breath.

“Say that again,” he said. “Did I hear you?”

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She repeated the news.

“Okaaaay,” Coats said. “That’s going to be special.”

Coats said he would have advised against Trump and Putin’s private meeting in Helsinki, which worried U.S. security officials because no notes were taken and only two interpreters were present, but that he had not been consulted. Underscoring how little is known about the meeting, Coats acknowledged that he has not been told what happened in the room. Asked whether it was possible Putin had secretly recorded the more-than two-hour meeting, Coats answered, “That risk is always there.”

Thursday’s announcement was the latest unexpected turn in a week in which Trump has faced a torrent of bipartisan criticism over his cozy approach to Putin and his vacillating utterances about Moscow’s election interference, all while brushing aside warnings that the Russian leader should be viewed as an adversary.

“The Summit with Russia was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media,” Trump wrote in a morning tweet. “I look forward to our second meeting so that we can start implementing some of the many things discussed.”

The tensions within the administration have been most evident between Trump and Coats. When asked in Helsinki whom he believed regarding Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, he appeared to give equal weight to Coats’s warnings and Putin’s denial of Russian interference.

“All I can do is ask the question,” he said. “My people came to me, Daniel Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia.”

Inside the White House, Trump’s advisers were in an uproar over Coats’s interview in Aspen, Colo. They said the optics were especially damaging, noting that at moments Coats appeared to be laughing at the president, playing to his audience of the intellectual elite in a manner that was sure to infuriate Trump.

“Coats has gone rogue,” said one senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide a candid assessment.

After Coats indirectly rebuked Trump’s Helsinki performance on Monday, senior administration officials were concerned that the intelligence director could perhaps resign and so implored Trump to reassure Coats and calm the waters. Trump tried to do just that on Wednesday in an interview with CBS Evening News anchor Jeff Glor, singling out Coats by name for praise. A transcript of the president’s interview was sent to Coats to ensure the director of national intelligence saw the comments, the senior official said.

White House aides are worried that Trump will interpret the comments by Coats as a personal betrayal, since they came so soon after the president praised him. Explaining that Trump does not take kindly to slights and that he nurses grudges, one official predicted that Coats’s Aspen interview could bother the president more than the many ethical blunders of Scott Pruitt, who was ousted as Environmental Protection Agency administrator.

A senior U.S. intelligence official said that Coats has a good relationship with the president and speaks with him frequently. He disputed the suggestion that the director was somehow undermining the president and said Coats was doing his job to describe what the Russians did.

“For someone in the White House to criticize Dan Coats for speaking truth to power is unfair,” the intelligence official said.

On Capitol Hill, where the reaction to Trump’s shifting stances on Russia’s role in the election has ranged from mild disapproval to accusations of treason, lawmakers on Thursday gave the president a legislative rebuke — albeit a toothless one.

Slideshow by photo services

On a 98-to-0 vote, the Senate approved a measure telling Trump not to honor a request by Putin that would have allowed Russian officials to interview Americans targeted by Moscow, including former U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul, in exchange for making Russian intelligence officers indicted in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe available for questioning. The White House caused an uproar on Wednesday when it said the president and his team would discuss the request rather than dismissing it out of hand.

Just before the vote, Sanders said Trump did not agree with Putin’s request but described it in friendly terms, saying it “was made in sincerity.”

Two other symbolic resolutions were blocked by Senate Republicans, underscoring their reluctance to challenge Trump despite voicing concerns over his comments this week. Those measures would have urged the president to take a tougher stand against Russia and affirmed lawmakers’ support for the intelligence community’s assessment of election interference as well as the special counsel’s investigation into alleged ties between Trump’s campaign and the Kremlin.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced that he had directed the Senate Banking and Foreign Relations committees to explore legislation that would impose further sanctions on Russia if it interferes in future elections.

In the House, Republicans voted down a Democratic effort to increase election security spending, unmoved by Democrats’ arguments for more funding and chants of “USA! USA!” on the House floor.

House Republicans also blocked an effort to subpoena the interpreter who translated for Trump at the president’s private meeting with Putin in Helsinki. Democrats argued that the interpreter’s testimony is necessary to understand what, if any, deals Trump and Putin may have agreed to during their meeting.

In a brief speech Thursday to Russian diplomats in Moscow, Putin said the Helsinki summit had led to “useful agreements.” Now, he said, U.S. jobs and European and Middle Eastern security hang in the balance as Trump’s U.S. opponents try to block the path to improving relations between Moscow and Washington.

“We will see how things go, as some forces in America are trying to belittle and disavow the results of the Helsinki meeting,” Putin said. “We see that there are forces in the United States ready to sacrifice Russian-American relations for their own domestic political ambitions.”

A day earlier, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, told reporters in Moscow that “important verbal agreements” were reached at the Helsinki meeting.

They include preservation of the New START and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces agreements, major bilateral arms-control treaties whose futures have been in question, Antonov said. He also said Putin had made “specific and interesting proposals to Washington” on how the two countries could cooperate on Syria.

Trump told law­makers this week that he and Putin had made “significant progress toward addressing” key issues. U.S. officials have offered few specifics on what was decided on those subjects beyond what Sanders on Wednesday called “the beginning of a dialogue with Russia.”

Trump’s close guarding of information about his discussions with Putin reflects his anger over leaks earlier this year, according to current and former White House officials.

He was enraged when it was reported in May that he did not follow specific warnings from his national security advisers and congratulated Putin on his reelection. The warnings from aides included a section in his briefing materials in all-capital letters stating “DO NOT CONGRATULATE.”

Trump urged senior White House officials to “fire someone,” in the words of one former senior administration official, and mentioned to others the names of low-level National Security Council staffers who he thought could be responsible for the leak.

Trump has since complained that many within his own government do not want him to have a friendly relationship with Putin and has been skeptical of making others privy to his conversations with the Russian leader — afraid that they will become public, according to the officials.

Democrats have blasted Trump for not revealing more about his meeting in Helsinki.

“Do we know if President Trump made commitments about the security of Israel or Syria or North Korea or any of the other issues the president said he discussed with Putin?” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Thursday. “It is utterly amazing, utterly amazing, that no one knows what was said. This is a democracy. If our president makes agreements with one of our leading — if not the leading — adversary, his Cabinet has to know about it, and so do the American people.”

As fallout from the Helsinki summit entered its fourth day, some administration officials walked a fine line between affirming the intelligence community’s findings and steering clear of saying anything that might embarrass Trump personally.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told the audience at a separate Aspen Institute appearance that “it would be foolish” to think that Russia is not continuing to target the United States. But she also appeared to push back against the notion that Russia’s 2016 interference was specifically aimed at helping Trump.

“I haven’t seen any evidence that the attempts to interfere in our election infrastructure was to favor a particular political party,” Nielsen said, adding that the “overall purpose” of Russia’s actions was to “get us all to fight against each other.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also defended Trump, saying in an interview with Fox News Channel that allegations that the president came across as weak in Helsinki are “absurd.”

“This administration has been relentless in its efforts to deter Russia from its bad behavior,” Pompeo said. “We inherited a situation where Russia was running all over the United States. These last few days have been, frankly, more heat than light.”

john.wagner@washpost.com

Philip Rucker, Josh Dawsey, Karoun Demirjian, Karen DeYoung and Missy Ryan in Washington and Anton Troianovski and Natalia Abbakumova in Moscow contributed to this report.

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