Trump to invite Putin to Capital; key aide stunned
WASHINGTON — President Trump plans to invite President Vladimir Putin of Russia to visit Washington in the fall, the White House said Thursday — an invitation that stunned the nation’s top intelligence official, who said he was still groping for details of what the two leaders had discussed in their encounter this week in Helsinki.
“Say that again,” the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, replied when Andrea Mitchell of NBC broke the news while interviewing him at a security conference in Aspen, Colo. “OK,” Coats said, taking a deep breath and chuckling awkwardly. “That’s going to be special.”
The announcement came as the White House spent another day trying to explain statements made by Trump after the Helsinki meeting, and as uncertainty spread throughout the government about whether he had reached agreements with Putin on Syria and Ukraine, leaving his military and diplomatic corps in the dark.
Yielding to intense criticism, Trump rejected a proposal by Putin for Russia to question US citizens, including a former ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, in return for giving the United States access to 12 Russian military intelligence officers indicted on charges of trying to sabotage the 2016 presidential election.
Two hours after the press secretary, Sarah Sanders, issued that reversal, she said on Twitter that Trump had asked his national security adviser, John Bolton, to invite Putin, framing the decision as part of a dialogue that began in Helsinki and would continue at lower levels until the Russian president comes to Washington.
Beyond saying the meeting would be in the fall, the White House did not announce a date. That means Trump could meet Putin again before the midterm elections, giving Trump a chance to redress the widespread criticism of how he handled the first meeting and possibly injecting further volatility into the campaigns.
But to Coats, who has been at odds with Trump about whether Russia meddled in the election, the prospect of another one-on-one encounter was clearly rattling. He said he would “look for a different way of doing it,” and expressed frustration that Trump had opted to meet Putin in Helsinki with only their interpreters in the room.
“If he had asked me how that ought to be conducted,” Coats said. “I would have suggested a different way. But that’s not my role; that’s not my job. So, it is what it is.”
Inside the White House, Trump’s advisers were in an uproar over Coats’s interview in Aspen. 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.
Coats said he expected that the details of the Helsinki meeting with Putin would trickle out in the coming weeks. But with Trump not giving a full account, some officials worry that the Russians now control the narrative. On Thursday, Bloomberg News reported that Putin told diplomats that he proposed to Trump holding a referendum to help resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Inundated with questions, the White House was either unable or unwilling to respond. A spokesman for the National Security Council said: “Presidents Trump and Putin discussed a wide range of national security issues in Helsinki. The US position on Ukraine remains the same.”
In a tweet Thursday morning, Trump said he looked forward to a second meeting with Putin “so that we can start implementing some of the many things discussed.” He listed Ukraine, Israel’s security, nuclear proliferation, trade, North Korea, and Middle East peace.
At the Pentagon, Trump’s reference to Ukraine alarmed officials, who have tried to reassure skittish European allies that the United States will stand with them to prevent Russia from carrying out the same predatory moves it imposed there.
If there was confusion about the future of Ukraine and Syria, there were open signs of dissent over Trump’s receptiveness to a proposal by Putin that he turn over Americans to Russia as part of a politically motivated case against Bill Browder, a US-born financier who has been highly critical of the Russian president.
“Yeah, that’s not going to happen,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, scheduled to air Friday.
Trump had praised the proposal Monday as an “incredible offer.” Two days later, Sanders said he still viewed it as an “interesting idea” and was discussing it with his staff.
But senior officials recoiled at the idea of turning over Americans to Russia; one aide insisted that the idea had not gained traction in the government. A parade of prominent diplomats and other former officials expressed outrage that Trump was even considering it.
By Thursday afternoon, Sanders said in a statement, “It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it. Hopefully, President Putin will have the 12 identified Russians come to the United States to prove their innocence or guilt.”
Under the deal floated by Putin, Russia would have allowed the special counsel, Robert Mueller, to question the 12 intelligence officers accused this past week of hacking the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
In return, Trump would have granted access to Americans who Russia claims were involved in illegal dealings with Browder, who was blacklisted and convicted of tax evasion by Russia after he campaigned against corruption in the Russian business world.
Among those on the list is McFaul, a Stanford professor and Russia scholar who served in the White House and as ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama, as well as current and former officials from the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the intelligence agencies.
McFaul was critical of Putin and the Russian government during his tour in Moscow, and he has continued to write and speak about Russia. He described the proposal as “absolutely outrageous,” and said it was merely an attempt to intimidate him.
Legal experts said Trump had no authority to turn over Americans for questioning. The United States does not have an extradition treaty with Russia.
Under a mutual legal assistance treaty between the two countries, the Justice Department can reject any request relating to a case it deems politically motivated — a classification it has long given to Russia’s case against Browder.
Still, the names on Russia’s list offered a telling glimpse into Putin’s grudges, as well as how he might have tried to appeal to Trump.
They include David Kramer, a former adviser to the State Department, now at the McCain Institute for International Leadership; Jonathan Winer, a former aide to former Secretary of State John Kerry; and Todd Hyman, an official in the Department of Homeland Security.
What several of these people have in common is their involvement in, or support for, the Magnitsky Act, a law passed by Congress in 2012 that blacklisted Russian officials involved in human rights abuses.
Other people on the list have links to Christopher Steele, the British former intelligence agent who compiled a dossier claiming that the Russian government had compromising information about Trump and had conspired to hand the 2016 election to him.
Material from The Washington Post was used in this report.