MOSCOW -- President Donald Trump in a March phone call proposed meeting Vladimir Putin at the White House, the Kremlin said Monday, a fresh revelation about a conversation that stirred controversy over Trump's friendly tone toward the Russian leader.
After the March 20 phone call -- in which Trump congratulated Putin on a re-election victory in a vote widely criticized as not free and fair -- Trump told reporters that the two leaders had talked about a possible meeting to discuss Syria, Ukraine, North Korea and "the arms race." He did not mention any meeting venues at that time.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday that "a number of potential venues, including the White House," were discussed.
A Kremlin aide, Yury Ushakov, disclosed the White House invitation in comments to Russian journalists Monday.
"If everything will be all right, I hope that the Americans will not back away from their own proposal to discuss the possibility of holding a summit," Ushakov said, according to the state news agency RIA Novosti. "When our presidents spoke on the phone, it was Trump who proposed holding the first meeting in Washington, in the White House."
Both sides said they hadn't started preparations for such a visit.
If such a meeting occurred, Putin would be getting the honor of an Oval Office tete-a-tete for the first time since he met President George W. Bush at the White House in 2005. Alarms rang in diplomatic and foreign policy circles over the prospect that Trump might offer Putin that venue without confronting him about Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election or allegations that Russia masterminded the March 4 nerve agent attack on a former Russian double agent.
"It would confer a certain normalization of relations, and we're certainly not in a normal space," said Alina Polyakova, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution. "Nothing about this is normal."
Those relations have been in a free fall since the nerve-agent poisoning of the former Russian double agent and his daughter in Britain on March 4. British authorities blamed the attack on Russia. The U.S. was slow to back that assessment, but the United States on March 26 joined countries in Europe and elsewhere in retaliatory expulsions of Russian diplomats.
The Kremlin denies it had anything to do with the nerve-agent attack and has ordered retaliatory expulsions. The former spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, remain hospitalized.
The added detail that Trump floated a White House meeting with Putin renews debate over a presidential phone call that came in the midst of that political storm and drew broad criticism.
In the March 20 call, Trump congratulated Putin on his re-election to a fourth term two days earlier and did not raise the subject of the nerve-agent attack. His national security advisers had urged him to condemn the Skripal poisoning and included an instruction in his briefing book that said, "DO NOT CONGRATULATE," officials familiar with the call told The Washington Post afterward.
The White House on Monday sought to play down the meeting proposal.
"As the president himself confirmed on March 20, hours after his last call with President Putin, the two had discussed a bilateral meeting in the 'not-too-distant future' at a number of potential venues, including the White House," Sanders said in a statement after Ushakov's comments. "We have nothing further to add at this time."
Given the worsening environment, Ushakov said Monday, "it is, of course, difficult to discuss the possibility of holding a summit," Russia's Interfax news agency reported.
"I hope that the situation will allow us to discuss this issue," the Kremlin aide added, referring to the planning for a Trump-Putin summit, according to Interfax. "We believe that it is rather important and necessary for both countries and for the entire international community."
Since Trump became president, he and Putin have met at the Group of 20 summit in Germany in July and, briefly, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam in November.
But a full-blown bilateral meeting has proved elusive, in part because of political head winds in Washington, fanned by the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and into possible collusion with the Trump campaign.
Russia's disclosure of the invitation came the day before the leaders of three Baltic countries -- Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia -- were to visit the White House. The three NATO nations are seen as a bulwark against Russia's aspirations of extended influence west of its border.
Trump has said maintaining a strong personal relationship with Putin is in the U.S. interest and has signaled to allies that he trusts his own instincts in dealing with the Russian president.
A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe private discussions, said Trump raised the possibility of a White House meeting in a "casual, open-ended" fashion during the call. The official reiterated that no extensive preparations had taken place.
Michael McFaul, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama, said the "symbolism of Putin standing in the East Room with the president at a news conference" would be a major goal for the Russian leader. "The only reason you should do it is if you're going to obtain a concrete objective that serves America's national security interest before the meeting," he said.
McFaul said he feared that Trump "thinks that a good meeting with Putin is the objective of his foreign policy with Russia. That should never be the objective. That should be the means to achieve things that are actually of importance to the United States."
Information for this article was contributed by Anton Troianovski of The Washington Post and by Ken Thomas, Vladimir Isachenkov and Josh Lederman of The Associated Press.
A Section on 04/03/2018
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