The White House refuses to say if Russia and Vladimir Putin are ally, enemy or something in between.
Three times this week, Principal Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has been asked by reporters to describe the official position of President Donald Trump on Russia. Each time, she has declined to describe how the president views relations with Moscow, a nuclear-armed global power with whom relations soured under the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.
The denials to define the relationship come amid a growing scandal about possible nefarious interactions and cooperation between Trump campaign officials and the Kremlin. On Tuesday, in a dramatic development, Donald Trump Jr. released an email exchange that appears to show him enthusiastically accepting help described to him as coming from a key Putin ally.
Here's my statement and the full email chain pic.twitter.com/x050r5n5LQ— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) July 11, 2017
Here is page 4 (which did not post due to space constraints). pic.twitter.com/z1Xi4nr2gq— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) July 11, 2017
Asked Wednesday if she had come to the briefing room with an answer on how the president classifies Russia, Huckabee Sanders replied: “I don’t.” And for the third consecutive day, she promised a reporter she would “work to make sure I get that answer to you.”
In an interview with Christian Broadcasting Network founder Pat Roberts taped on Wednesday at the White House for broadcast Thursday, Trump said he and Putin had an “excellent meeting.”
Trump also told Robertson that he disagrees with notions that Putin and his government preferred him winning the presidency and worked to help bring about that outcome.
“I’m a big military person... [and] if Hillary had won, our military would be decimated,” Trump said. “Our energy would be much more expensive. That’’s what Putin doesn’t like about me. … He would like Hillary, where she wants to have windmills. He would much rather have that because energy prices would go up and Russia as you know relies very much on energy.”
Trump’s definition of the U.S.-Russia relationship sounds very transactional.
"Well [Putin] wants what’s good for Russia, and I want what’s good for the United States,” Trump told CBN. “And I think in a case like Syria where we can get together, do a ceasefire, and there are many other cases where getting along can be a very positive thing.”
That puts him at odds with many hawkish and even moderate members of his own political party at home.
Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called Trump’s G-20 one-on-one with Putin “disastrous,” and and has warned Trump has a “blind spot” when it comes to Russia. (Candidate Trump campaigned on warmer relations with Moscow.)
“When it comes to Russia I am dumbfounded, I am disappointed, and at the end of the day he’s hurting his presidency by not embracing the fact that Putin is a bad guy,” Graham said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Trump is “literally the only person I know of who doesn’t believe Russia attacked our election in 2016,” Graham said.
And on Wednesday, GOP House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin talked about crafting a Russia sanctions bill in way that is mindful of “making sure we don’t inadvertently help Russian oligarchs and oil firms.” While the Trump administration has not taken a public position on that legislation, Ryan said“we want to get this done and get this fixed and get this moving as quickly as possible.”
But the nearly two-hour-and-a-half G-20 meeting with Putin — much longer than Trump huddled privately with any other leader while there —has only intensified questions about the president’s views.
On Monday, Huckabee Sanders was asked if the White House would label Russia a partner, ally or adversary. She replied that she would have to discuss the matter with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and members of the National Security Council.
Based on Trump’s own recent comments and tweets, one thing is clear: The 45th president is ready to work and cut deals with Putin and his government.
“I think we saw that there were places of shared interest that we can work together,” Sanders said Monday. “Specifically, things like the [southwestern] Syrian ceasefire, that we both can agree on in order to move forward in some places.” She did note cooperation will not be possible in “on everything.”
Also asked that day if Trump trusts Putin, she replied: “I haven’t asked him that question.” She agreed to take the query to Trump.
The next day, a reporter asked: “Is Russia a friend or foe?”
Huckabee Sanders replied: “Again, I haven’t had a chance to have that direct conversation [with Trump.] I’ve been a little preoccupied with other things, but I certainly will check on that.”
But by the time Wednesday’s later-than-usual (3 p.m. EDT) press briefing rolled around, she had not asked the president to define America’s relationship with a country his own intelligence community has concluded interfered in the 2016 presidential election.