Trump, Putin Use First Formal Phone Call to Seek Better Ties

  • New U.S. president speaks with leaders of five countries
  • Republican lawmakers warn against easing Russia sanctions

Skidelsky: Trump Wants a Reset With Russia

President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged cooperation in fighting Islamic State terrorists, the two sides said, as they seek to ease tension after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its support for Syria, and allegations that Russian hackers sought to sway the U.S. election.

“The positive call was a significant start to improving the relationship between the United States and Russia that is in need of repair,” the White House said in a statement after the leaders talked by phone for about an hour on Saturday. Putin told Trump he “sees the U.S. as a most important partner in the fight against international terrorism,” according to a readout of the call from the Kremlin that described the conversation as “positive and businesslike.”

The call, one of several Trump held with world leaders on Saturday, was among the first formal steps in his effort to reset relations with the Kremlin, which soured under the Obama administration after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in his fight against rebel groups.

Trump’s critics have questioned the wisdom of his calls for better ties with Putin, especially in light of the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia hacked e-mails of the Democratic National Committee and other Democrats in a bid to swing the November election in Trump’s favor.

‘Absolutely Opposed’

Trump has said he would consider easing financial penalties imposed by the U.S. over the annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine in 2014 in exchange for Russia’s support on a nuclear weapons deal or fighting terror groups like the Islamic State. But any move by Trump to ease sanctions on Russia would meet strong resistance from members of both parties in the U.S. Congress, where some lawmakers are seeking to add still more sanctions because of the hacking.

“I’m absolutely opposed to lifting sanctions on Russia,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” program. “If anything, we ought to be looking at increasing them.”

White House press secretary Sean Spicer said on the same program that no decision has been made on sanctions and “that really wasn’t brought up” in the call with Putin. But he added that “the president doesn’t take anything off the table” because “he’s a world-class negotiator.”

Critics have argued that Russia’s support of Assad has nothing to do with Islamic State fighters based there, pointing to its air war that has focused on rebels around Aleppo not affiliated with the group.

‘Active Joint Efforts’

Vice President Mike Pence participated in the call with Putin along with senior counselor Stephen Bannon, chief of staff Reince Priebus, national security adviser Michael Flynn and press secretary Sean Spicer. The White House said the call lasted about an hour.

“In the course of the conversation, both sides demonstrated a desire for active joint efforts to stabilize and develop Russia-American relations on a constructive, equitable and mutually beneficial basis,” the Kremlin said. “The importance was underlined of restoring mutually beneficial trade and economic ties between business on both sides.”

The two leaders didn’t discuss the lifting of sanctions, Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Interfax on Saturday.

Trump downplayed the possibility of sanctions relief anytime soon during a press conference on Friday, saying, “We’ll see what happens. As far as the sanctions, very early to be talking about that.”

Climate Accord

Also Saturday, Trump spoke with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, French President Francois Hollande, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Hollande said the sanctions on Russia must only be lifted if progress is made on the Minsk agreement aimed at bringing peace to Ukraine, according to his office.

He told Trump that “the defense of democracies requires observing fundamental principles and among these are welcoming refugees,” a criticism of the president’s executive order, signed Friday, that suspended refugee admissions and put a 90-day ban on admissions of people from seven Muslim-majority nations including Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Hollande also warned Trump of the “economic and political consequences” of protectionism, according to his office, as the U.S. president looks to renegotiate trade agreements and potentially put a tax on imports.

NATO Alliance

In the call with Merkel, Trump agreed on the importance of the NATO alliance and the need for allies to contribute their fair share, according to readouts from both sides. The White House said they discussed Ukraine but provided no details; Merkel has previously said she wants Europe to maintain pressure on Russia over Ukraine regardless of what the U.S. decides to do.

Trump accepted Merkel’s invitation to attend a Group of 20 summit in Hamburg in July, according to the readouts.

Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, on Friday called on Trump to reject the “reckless course” of easing sanctions on Russia and remember that Putin is “a murderer and a thug who seeks to undermine American national security interests at every turn.”

“If he does not, I will work with my colleagues to codify sanctions against Russia into law,” McCain said.

There was no indication that Putin and Trump discussed Russian attempts to interfere in the election. The Obama administration imposed additional sanctions and expelled Russian intelligence officials from the U.S. over the alleged interference. As part of a report detailing the Russian effort, both the former and current president also were briefed on an unsubstantiated dossier of salacious personal and business intelligence about Trump allegedly collected by Russian security services.

Trump has denied the allegations in the dossier, which was subsequently published by the website BuzzFeed, and the Kremlin has said it didn’t spy on the president during his trips to Russia as a private citizen.

In his call with Turnbull, Trump vowed to uphold an agreement with Australia to resettle asylum seekers held in Pacific island camps, according to an Australian government official. About 1,600 asylum seekers who tried to reach Australia by boat are being detained on Manus Island and Nauru, with many potentially eligible to be resettled in the U.S. under an agreement reached last year with the Obama administration.

— With assistance by Ben Brody, Gregory White, Gregory Viscusi, Nick Wadhams, Ksenia Galouchko, and Stepan Kravchenko

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