After Russian president Vladimir Putin surprised absolutely no one by winning reelection on Sunday, the White House said there were no plans to congratulate him on the victory (which involved reports of ballot-stuffing and his biggest rival being barred from the ballot). Yet just one day later, President Trump kicked off what he described as a “very good call” with Putin by commending him on his election win.
According to the Washington Post, Trump did this despite his national security advisers inserting a warning in his briefing materials, written in all capital letters: “DO NOT CONGRATULATE.” Trump also ignored instructions to condemn the recent poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain, which runs the risk of further angering London officials, who want their allies to denounce the attack. Trump mentioned to reporters that he and Putin will “probably be meeting in the not-too-distant future,” though White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said nothing is planned.
Trump’s move drew sharp criticism from Senator John McCain, and the many other Twitter users who suspect there might be something fishy about his relationship with Russia.
But that’s just one explanation for Trump’s decision to congratulate Putin. Here are some other possibilities.
Trump Didn’t Bother to Read His Notes
Several officials told the Post that they provided Trump with talking points written on handwritten notecards for his chat with Putin, as is customary for calls with foreign leaders. They noted that rather than ignoring their advice, it’s possible Trump never read it.
Two people familiar with the notecards acknowledged that they included instructions not to congratulate Putin. But a senior White House official emphasized that national security adviser H.R. McMaster did not mention the issue during a telephone briefing with the president, who was in the White House residence ahead of and during his conversation with Putin.
It was not clear whether Trump read the notes, administration officials said.
Trump Has Given Up on the Written Word Altogether
Last month the Post reported that even bullet-point- and picture-filled briefing documents were proving too much for Trump, so he’s “opted to rely on an oral briefing of select intelligence issues.” That may explain one official’s odd claim that while the Putin notecards exist, Trump was only briefed verbally. Per the New York Times:
A second official, however, said that while Mr. Trump’s briefing cards did contain those suggestions, he spoke to his aides by phone and never saw the cards.
Why Should Trump Trust His Disloyal National Security Advisers Anyway?
Just because a staffer writes “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” on a card doesn’t mean the president has to take that advice — and going forward, Trump will probably be even less likely to do so.
Russia’s Election May Have Been a Sham, But We Don’t Have to Be Rude About It
Sarah Huckabee Sanders noted that the Trump administration just imposed sanctions on Russia for U.S. election meddling and cyberattacks, and joined France and Germany in formally condemning the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. She painted Trump’s decision to take a friendlier stance in his personal interactions with Putin as a strategic choice.
“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,” Sanders said. “We’ve placed tough sanctions on Russia and a number of other things where we have shown exactly what our position is.”
She emphasized, however, that Trump is determined to establish a working relationship with Putin to tackle global challenges, including confronting North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Who Are We to Criticize Another Country’s Election?
When asked if the Trump administration thinks Russia’s election was “free and fair,” Sanders said the White House is focused on U.S. elections.
“We don’t get to dictate how other countries operate,” Sanders responded. “What we do know is that Putin has been elected in their country, and that’s not something that we can dictate to them, how they operate. We can only focus on the freeness and fairness of elections in our country.”
But, to be clear, the investigation into what went down during the 2016 U.S. presidential election is totally bogus. Per the Times:
Echoing the president, [Sanders] went on to rail against the investigation of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, into links between the Trump campaign and Russia.
“To pretend like going through this absurd process for over a year would not bring frustration seems a little bit ridiculous,” she said.
All the Other Countries Are Doing It
Sanders noted that other foreign leaders, like French president Emannuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel, congratulated Putin too. That’s technically true, but those calls sound far more awkward. Macron pressed Putin on Skripal’s poisoning, and only wished success “to Russia and the Russian people,” rather than Putin personally. Merkel’s office said she told Putin: “Today, it is more important than ever to continue the dialogue with one another and to foster relations between our states and peoples.”
Would You Believe That This Is All Obama’s Fault?
Many pointed out that Barack Obama congratulated Putin on his 2012 election victory, accusing those upset by Trump’s friendly call of hypocrisy. Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow at the time, said there was much internal debate about how to handle the situation, and Obama eventually went with a carefully worded statement that did commend Russians, but not Putin. Per the Times:
After that election, the State Department issued a statement in which it said, “The United States congratulates the Russian people on the completion of the presidential elections, and looks forward to working with the president-elect after the results are certified and he is sworn in.”
The language, Mr. McFaul said, was carefully chosen to applaud the Russian people for voting without praising Mr. Putin for winning. The statement also noted the reservations of outside observers about the “partisan use of government resources, and procedural irregularities on Election Day,” though it credited the Russian authorities for reforms after a widely criticized parliamentary election the previous December.
Compared to Trump’s Other Dictator Pals, Is Putin Really So Terrible?
Sure, congratulating Putin’s election win is bad, but it’s not, like, “congratulating Rodrigo Duterte on a dubious drug war that’s killed thousands”–level bad.
But Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, appeared less concerned, noting that Trump has also offered congratulations to other leaders of more totalitarian states. “I wouldn’t read much into it,” Corker said.