Trump did congratulate Putin, to the dismay — though not surprise — of some of his top national security advisers. Aides said it’s unclear if a meeting with Putin will happen because Trump suggests a meeting during nearly all of his calls with foreign leaders as a routine pleasantry.
An argument the president’s national security advisers have found to be successful in trying to persuade Trump to adopt aggressive Russia policies is that Putin responds to strength and the way to achieve better relations is to be tougher on him, officials said.
One official described it as a way to “motivate” Trump on Russia.
“He digs in his heels,” the official said. “He thinks a better relationship with Russia is good for the U.S., and he really believes he can deliver it.”
Moreover, the official said, Trump wants a better U.S. relationship with Russia to prove he can accomplish it.
One official said Trump believes a stable U.S. relationship with Russia is important if the U.S. is going to find resolutions to other crisis, such as the conflict in Syria.
Rex Tillerson, Trump’s outgoing secretary of state, led the effort to convince Trump to approve the new arms for Ukraine, officials said. The plan, which Russia opposed, included the sale of U.S.-made Javelin anti-tank missiles that Kiev has for years requested from Washington. President Barack Obama had repeatedly refused to approve Ukraine’s request out of concern it would escalate U.S. tensions with Russia.
Tillerson scheduled a meeting with the president to discuss the plan shortly after the national security team approved it last summer, and he raised the issue with Trump in their regular meetings over the next few months, officials said.
As the policy sat on his desk awaiting his signature, the president expressed concern that it would escalate tensions with Russia and lead to a broader conflict, officials said. They said he also saw Ukraine as a problem for Europe and questioned why he should have to do something about it. And he insisted Ukraine purchase the arms from the U.S., not receive them for free, officials said, before signing off on the policy in December.
“Tillerson just wore him down,” a White House official said.
But Trump’s ambivalence didn’t end, officials said. In one instance afterward, Trump complained to his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, that his decision could really escalate the situation in Ukraine to a war. McMaster, who was recently ousted, responded by telling the president there already is a war there, to which Trump shot back that the U.S. is not in it, an official said.
Last week, as the president’s national security team finalized options for a response to the Russian nerve agent attack in the U.K., Trump voiced a now-familiar complaint. He said he wasn’t going to take dramatic steps against Russia unless they were met with equal responses from America’s European allies, aides said. His edict helped corral a response that included expulsions of more than 100 Russian diplomats in more than two dozen countries.
Trump was presented with three options last Friday during a meeting with his national security team, officials said. He chose the middle option, persuaded most by the idea that if Russia changed its behavior he wouldn’t have needed the most strident measures and if it doesn’t he has additional actions he can take, officials said.