US divide over Russia policy increasing

 President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Helsinki on Monday.
President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Helsinki on Monday. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — When President Trump directed aides to ask President Vladimir Putin of Russia to the White House this fall, the invitation was his latest attempt to use personal diplomacy in the pursuit of better relations with the Kremlin.

But it was also at odds with other moves that served as blunt reminders that the national security establishment appears to be following a radically different Russia policy than the commander in chief.

For example, the Pentagon declared Friday that it would provide $200 million in assistance to Ukraine to help fight the Russia-controlled separatists in the country’s east. “Russia should suffer consequences for its aggressive, destabilizing behavior and its illegal occupation of Ukraine,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said.


And a day earlier, the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, pledged to offer Trump a candid assessment of the vast risks of inviting Putin to the White House.

The disconnect between the policies aimed at curbing Russia and the president’s position has never been wider, a gap that presents serious risks, current and former US officials said.

“If you are not clear about what the policy is, you are going to have an ineffective government,” said John Sipher, a 28-year veteran of the CIA who served in Moscow in the 1990s and later ran the agency’s Russia program for three years. “It is worse than that. Parts of the government are working at cross-purposes to each other.”

In administration strategy documents, NATO communiqués, and other official orders, Russia is called a growing threat, a potential or actual adversary intent on undermining democratic institutions of the United States and its allies. The Trump administration has imposed sanctions on Russia’s elite, and the special counsel has indicted about two dozen Russians on charges of interfering with the 2016 presidential election.

But in recent days, as Trump sustained his attacks on European allies, declared his meeting in Finland with Putin a success, and signaled that he wanted a more constructive relationship with Moscow, following a policy of isolating Russia has grown more difficult, officials said.


“The combination of the president’s repeated attacks on NATO, his repeated failure to hold Putin accountable for the 2016 assault on our elections and his refusal to call Putin out regarding the current efforts to subvert the midterms all raise legitimate questions about what is going on with the president,” said David Laufman, the former chief of the Justice Department’s counterintelligence and export control section.

Adding to the difficulty of deciphering American policy toward Moscow is the fact that Trump seems to have told relatively few people about what he and Putin discussed at their one-on-one meeting in Helsinki on Monday.

Coats said he didn’t know what went on in the summit, and other national security officials said they were in the dark as well. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday he had spoken to the president about the meeting, but Trump has not shared his thoughts widely with the government.

In other administrations, such a meeting would have produced a plethora of diplomatic cables as well as briefings for national security officials or lawmakers, according to former officials.

“At this point, all I have heard is crickets,” said Eric S. Edelman, a former undersecretary of defense for policy in the George W. Bush administration.

Seeking to clear up one aspect of the confusion, the White House said Friday it ‘‘is not considering supporting’’ a proposal by Putin for a referendum in eastern Ukraine in the aftermath of Trump’s meeting with the Russian president.


Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to the United Sates, revealed Friday that the two leaders had discussed the possibility of a referendum on separatist-leaning eastern Ukraine’s future during their Helsinki summit.

Antonov’s disclosure had raised new concerns in the United States.

Also, on Thursday, the White House said Trump ‘‘disagrees’’ with Putin’s offer to allow US questioning of 12 Russians who have been indicted for election interference in exchange for Russian interviews with the former US ambassador to Russia and other Americans the Kremlin accuses of unspecified crimes. Trump initially had described the idea as an ‘‘incredible offer.’’

The White House backtracking came just before the Senate voted overwhelmingly against the proposal. It was Congress’s first formal rebuke of Trump’s actions from the summit and its aftermath.

Asked about the Putin invitation to Washington, Senator Dan Sullivan, Republican of Alaska, said, ‘‘I wouldn’t do it.’’

‘‘If the Russians want a better relationship, trips to the White House aren’t going to help,’’ Sullivan added. ‘‘They should stop invading their neighbors.’’

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi on Friday urged House Speaker Paul Ryan to make it clear that Putin won’t be invited to address Congress if he comes to Washington. Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said Putin should not expect an invitation.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.