Trump Renews Overtures to Putin, Against Pretty Much All Advice

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump is eager to bring Russian President Vladimir Putin back into the fold of the international community, defying the advice of U.S. allies, lawmakers in his own party, and even his own administration’s top national security officials.

Trump said on Friday that Russia should be re-admitted to the Group of Eight countries, which was reduced to a Group of Seven following Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Other leaders in the group of industrialized nations rebuked the U.S. president, who made the off-the-cuff remark as he left the White House for the annual G-7 summit in Quebec.

The White House confirmed on Thursday that Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has offered to host a summit between Trump and Putin in Vienna. Trump hasn’t said whether he is considering the proposal.

Trump called himself “Russia’s worst nightmare” on Friday before advocating for the country to be let back into the G-8.

You know, whether you like it or not, and it may not be politically correct, but we have a world to run,” Trump said on Friday. “And in the G-7, which used to be the G-8, they threw Russia out. They should let Russia come back in, because we should have Russia at the negotiating table.”

Trump’s relations with key allies at the G-7 are already strained. He’s facing a backlash from leaders in Canada and Europe over tariffs he imposed on steel and aluminum, as well as his decisions to walk away from international deals to address Iran’s nuclear program and climate change.

‘Engage But Beware’

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, speaking in an interview with Sky News on Friday, said the nations should “engage but beware” with Russia.

“Let’s remember why the G-8 became the G-7,” May said. “And before discussions could begin on any of this, we would have to ensure Russia is amending its ways and taking a different route.”

The president appears to be alone among his party and even within his administration in seeking to repair U.S. relations with the Kremlin. Representative Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican, replied to the idea of letting Putin back into the G-8 in a tweet: “Uhhhhh nope” And as Trump spoke Friday morning, his Defense Secretary James Mattis warned about Russia in remarks to reporters at a Nato meeting in Brussels.

“Threats to our collective security have not waned, whether terrorism to the south or Russia’s aggression and hybrid threats to the east,” Mattis said.

Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, castigated Trump for his remarks on Putin and for his animosity toward U.S. allies and trading partners.

“The President has inexplicably shown our adversaries the deference and esteem that should be reserved for our closest allies,” McCain said in a statement. “Those nations that share our values and have sacrificed alongside us for decades are being treated with contempt. This is the antithesis of so-called ‘principled realism’ and a sure path to diminishing America’s leadership in the world.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov waved off Trump’s advocacy for Russia’s re-admission to the G-8. “We focus on other formats,” he told the official Tass news agency, referring to groups like the broader G-20. Putin was in China Friday, where he and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping touted their close ties.

“This is probably just Trump’s desire to troll -- to use contemporary language -- his G-7 partners,” said Vladimir Batyuk, an analyst at a Russian government research institute, according to the official RIA Novosti news agency. “It’s not likely there’s a thought-out, serious policy behind these words.”

A European diplomat said that Russia’s misbehavior in the world has only grown worse since it was ejected from the G-8 after annexing Crimea, including “attempts to undermine democracy in Europe.”

“It is not appropriate for Russia to rejoin until we see it behaving responsibly. Putin should get nothing for free,” the diplomat said, declining to be identified by name or by country.

Putin Calls

Trump has periodically expressed skepticism about the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that the Kremlin meddled in the 2016 election that he won, and he has forcefully rejected assertions that Russia was responsible for his victory. He and Putin occasionally speak by phone -- the Russian president has hinted the calls happen more often than the White House has publicly acknowledged -- and they have met twice overseas since Trump was inaugurated.

And the president has grown increasingly antagonistic toward Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating whether Trump’s campaign colluded with the Kremlin in its election machinations.

“When and where will all of the many conflicts of interest be listed by the 13 Angry Democrats (plus) working on the Witch Hunt Hoax,” Trump said of the probe on Twitter Thursday. “There has never been a group of people on a case so biased or conflicted. It is all a Democrat Excuse for LOSING the Election.”

On Wednesday, the only member of Congress Trump congratulated by name for winning a primary election was Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican who has cultivated such close ties to the Kremlin that the FBI warned him in 2012 he was regarded as a Russian intelligence source, according to the New York Times.

Representative John Yarmuth, a Kentucky Democrat, joked on Twitter after Trump’s G-8 remarks: “Say what you will about Trump, he sure is loyal to the country that elected him.”

Sanctions Regime

Yet, at the same time Trump appears eager to cozy up to Moscow, his administration is maintaining an economic sanctions regime against Russia even stronger than under President Barack Obama. On top of penalties Obama imposed in 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and 2016 for Russian election-related cyber attacks, the Trump administration imposed sanctions in April on Russian billionaire and Putin ally Oleg Deripaska and companies that are part of his business empire, including United Rusal Co., Russia’s largest aluminum producer.

Rusal has been savaged by the sanctions, warning of credit defaults if it remains blocked from the U.S. financial system.

Public statements such as his advocacy for Russia to be re-admitted to the G-8 risk weakening the sanctions regime, however.

“When you say this, it undermines the strong actions this administration is taking against Russia,” said Brian O’Toole, a former senior adviser in Treasury’s sanctions office under Obama and now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “It undermines the deterrent effect that the sanctions would have and it may make Russia expect it can get away with more without getting punished.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.