U.S. President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, during the first official phone talks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (Photographer: Pete Marovich/Pool via Bloomberg)

White House Rift Over Russia Deepens After Trump's Putin Call

(Bloomberg) -- A battle within the White House over how to address Vladimir Putin is intensifying as U.S. President Donald Trump shows little desire to confront the Russian leader on the most controversial issues facing the two nations.

The internal divisions flared this week after Trump congratulated Putin on his re-election without first reviewing written guidance for the phone call, according to a person familiar with the matter. Trump’s felicitation prompted objections from senior Republican lawmakers and worsened tensions among White House aides involved in Russia matters.

The Washington Post reported that talking points for the call advised the president not to congratulate Putin for an election regarded in the West as fraudulent. In a verbal briefing before the call, Trump’s advisers didn’t address the matter, the person said.

A camp that includes National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster is pressing the president to take a tougher public posture toward Putin, people familiar with the matter said. Another group including Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo reinforces Trump’s inclination to forgo face-to-face confrontation and seek cooperation with Russia, describing the approach as realistic in part because of the influence Russia wields in much of Europe as a key energy supplier, they said.

The split is deepening as the Trump administration decides how to respond to the nerve-gas poisoning of a former Russian spy living in England that the U.K. has blamed on Putin’s government. The administration plans new actions against Russia that may be announced within days, according to two people familiar with the matter who declined to describe the moves. Substantively, U.S. policy toward Russia has become tougher in recent months, though Trump’s critics say he has dragged his feet in responding to Putin’s provocations.

All of the people who discussed the administration’s divide over Russia did so on condition they not be identified.

Won’t ‘Excoriate’

Trump, who’s aware of the disagreement among his aides, didn’t mention such sensitive issues as the U.K. poisoning or ongoing concerns over Russian interference in U.S. elections during his 30-minute call with Putin. Trump has been willing to adopt increasingly tough policy stances on Russia. But the president places a priority on maintaining a personal relationship with the Russian president, won’t publicly insult him, and doesn’t see any benefit to the U.S. in confronting Putin in one-on-one encounters, one administration official said.

In a readout of a call between Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday, the White House said the two leaders reiterated their solidarity with the U.K. and agreed on the need to take action to hold Russia accountable.

Trump defended his call with Putin on Twitter Wednesday, dismissing those who “wanted me to excoriate him.”

“They are wrong!” Trump wrote. “Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing.”

Trump’s strategy carries significant political risk, as it fuels perceptions that he’s currying favor with Putin even while Special Counsel Robert Mueller investigates whether the president’s 2016 campaign colluded with Russia. It’s also a test for key European allies -- particularly the U.K., which recently expelled several diplomats after determining Russia had attempted to assassinate the former spy, Sergei Skripal.

Trump v. His Aides

Some Russia analysts outside the administration describe the divide as essentially between Trump and all of his staff. Privately, these analysts say, none of Trump’s advisers believe Putin is anything less than antagonistic toward U.S. interests, regardless of what they tell the president.

“There’s the president and then there’s everybody else,” said Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security and a former foreign policy adviser to Senator John McCain of Arizona.

Much of the Trump administration’s official policy toward Russia has grown more strident, regardless of the president’s own rhetoric. A national defense strategy assembled by the Pentagon under Defense Secretary James Mattis and publicly summarized in January describes China and Russia as the U.S.’s top global adversaries. Last week, the administration slapped financial sanctions against a St. Petersburg-based Internet “troll farm” and its alleged owner -- a close Putin ally -- that Mueller indicted for a covert social media campaign to influence the 2016 U.S. election.

“It seems to me just about everybody has staked out a fairly hawkish position except for the president,” said Eugene Rumer, director of the Russia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “He is the minority of one but he is the one that matters. Everyone else seems to be holding a very dim view of Putin, Russian policy and the prospects for the next 6 years.”

Post Leak

Frustration within the West Wing boiled over Tuesday after the Post’s report on Trump’s call with Putin. The story prompted a rare statement from the White House hinting that officials would search for the leaker.

Trump has removed several people who sought to temper his impulses on policies ranging from trade to foreign policy, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who had pushed for a tougher approach to Russia and was fired in a tweet last week. Pompeo, currently the CIA director, will be nominated to succeed Tillerson, the White House has said.

The influence of McMaster, the most vocal West Wing proponent of a more confrontational approach to Putin, appears to be waning. Trump rebuked McMaster in February for saying that Russia had interfered in the U.S. election -- chastising his aide for failing to note that any meddling hadn’t contributed to the president’s victory.

Chief of Staff John Kelly has recently inquired at the Pentagon about possible military posts for McMaster, a three-star general.

Tillerson’s Last Policy

Trump faces pressure to take a stronger stance against Putin in Congress, which passed legislation in August giving lawmakers the power to block the president from lifting punitive measures imposed after Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and its alleged interference in the U.S. election.

And before his firing, Tillerson’s State Department had begun to ramp up criticism of Russia in speeches and tweets from spokeswoman Heather Nauert’s Twitter account -- the result, in part, of one of Tillerson’s last policy decisions.

Tillerson, who had spearheaded efforts over the last year to find common ground with Russia on Syria’s civil war and North Korea’s nuclear program, had recently come to the conclusion that the initiative wasn’t working and it was time for a tougher stance.

“I’ve become extremely concerned about Russia,” Tillerson told reporters on his plane as he returned from Africa last week, hours before he was fired. “We spent most of last year investing a lot into attempts to work together, to solve problems, to address differences. And quite frankly, after a year, we didn’t get very far.”

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