Trump and his aides offer mixed messages on Russia

President Donald Trump speaks at a press conference in the East Room of the White House on Feb. 16, 2017 in Washington, D.C.


By W.J. HENNIGAN AND TRACY WILKINSON | Tribune Washington Bureau | Published: February 16, 2017

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Insisting he would “love to get along with Russia,” President Donald Trump strongly defended his attempts to seek warmer ties with Moscow on Thursday even as three top advisers raised major caution flags about cooperating with President Vladimir Putin’s autocratic government and military.

Questions about his administration’s controversial outreach to Russia dominated a sometimes-raucous White House news conference, and Trump denied that he had any investments, debts or even contacts there, saying at one point, “I’ve done nothing for Russia.”

“I have nothing to do with Russia,” he said. “I have no deals there. I have no anything.”

But he was less definitive when repeatedly pressed to say whether members of his campaign team or other associates had been in contact with Russian intelligence officials during last year’s presidential race, an issue now under FBI investigation.

“Nobody that I know of,” the president said. He called questions about the issue a “ruse” and “fake news.”

After mixed signals from the White House, Trump confirmed that he had asked national security adviser Michael Flynn to resign this week after it became clear the retired Army general had lied about his phone calls to Russia’s ambassador.

“He didn’t tell the vice president of the United States the facts. And then he didn’t remember. And that just wasn’t acceptable to me,” he said.

He also blamed what he called “fake news” for perhaps ruining chances to improve relations by reducing his negotiating room. “I think Putin probably assumes he can’t make a deal with me anymore,” he said.

Trump’s comments are unlikely to dispel the storm of criticism on Capitol Hill and bipartisan calls for congressional investigations into whether Trump knew about Flynn’s calls, or if anyone else was improperly communicating with Russian authorities.

Several top advisers offered less enthusiastic praise for Russia in a flurry of high-level diplomatic and military meetings overseas that showcased the conflicting messages emerging from the new administration.

Speaking to reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Secretary of Defense James Mattis appeared to push back against Trump’s calls to join forces with Moscow in the war against Islamic State, saying Russia needs to “prove itself first” before the Pentagon would collaborate with Russian forces.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson separately held his first meeting with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, at a G-20 forum in Bonn, Germany. Tillerson said he urged Moscow to withdraw its troops from Ukraine, noting that the two countries don’t always “see eye to eye.”

Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sat down with his Russian counterpart in Baku, Azerbaijan, the first such meeting since Russia seized Crimea and began backing an armed insurgency against the U.S.-backed government in Ukraine in 2014.

Concerns about Trump’s strategy on Russia, especially since the FBI and CIA concluded that Russian intelligence services interfered in the U.S. presidential campaign in an effort to help Trump win, have overshadowed much of the administration agenda.

Trump has fed those concerns because he has consistently praised Putin, and has continued to challenge or disregard U.S. intelligence and military assessments on the Kremlin’s role in the U.S. election, Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere.

Last week, Trump cast doubt on whether Moscow is backing armed separatists in eastern Ukraine who have escalated their attacks in recent weeks. He thus appeared to side with Putin, who has long denied involvement in the conflict.

Although most U.S. officials do not doubt Russia has provided arms and fighters to the insurgents, Trump said he was not concerned by the renewed fighting, adding, “We don’t really know exactly what that is.”

Dunford’s discussion with Gen. Valeriy Gerasimov, Russia’s top officer, was thus notable. Pentagon leaders have not met with their Russian counterparts since the Obama administration imposed sanctions on Russia in 2014.

Since then, Russia sent its military to help Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces regain the upper hand in the country’s bitter civil war. But U.S. officials say Russian backed-forces repeatedly attacked schools, hospitals and other civilian sites, and have not targeted Islamic State positions.

Dunford, who rose through the ranks during the Cold War, is known to have deep-seated concerns about broad U.S. collaboration with Russia’s military.

But the Pentagon is also worried about the increasingly crowded skies in northwest Syria, where U.S. and Russian aircraft have had several close calls on their bombing runs.

He and Gerasimov discussed improving military-to-military communications to avoid an air accident, according to a statement by Dunford’s office. Whether they will signal the start of a thaw with Russia, or simply tweak the tightly constrained communications, remains to be seen.

In recent weeks the U.S. military has alerted Russian commanders to U.S. airstrikes on the besieged town of Al Bab to avoid hitting Russian ground forces working with Syrian troops.

But communication is limited to an insecure phone line and a commercial Google email account, U.S. officials said, between a Russian-speaking U.S. Air Force colonel in Qatar and a Russian officer.

The Pentagon is considering elevating the dialogue to formalized conversations at the three-star general officer level.

Putin, in a televised address Thursday to the Federal Security Service intelligence agency, said it was mutually beneficial to restore communications between the two nations.

“It’s in everyone’s interest to resume dialogue between the intelligence agencies of the United States and other members of NATO,” Putin said. “It’s absolutely clear that in the area of counterterrorism all relevant governments and international groups should work together.”

Speaking in Brussels, Mattis said that wasn’t possible given Russia’s military incursion in Ukraine and its humanitarian violations in Syria.

“They have to live by international law just like we expect all mature nations to do,” Mattis said. “We will engage politically. We’re not in a position to engage on a military level.”

For now, the military is wary of Russia’s increasingly aggressive actions, including an incident last week when a Russian warplane buzzed a U.S. Navy destroyer in the Black Sea and the sighting of a Russian spy ship about 30 miles off Virginia.

U.S. officials also say Russia violated a 1987 treaty by deploying an intermediate-range missile, which was considered highly destabilizing during the Cold War because of its ability to strike with no early warning. The Russians deny the allegation.

For his part, Tillerson described his meeting with the Russian foreign minister as “productive.”

“The United States will consider working with Russia when we can find areas of practical cooperation that will benefit the American people,” he said. “Where we do not see eye to eye, the United States will stand up for the interests and values of America and her allies.”

In contrast to Tillerson, Lavrov took a question from a reporter, who asked if he was concerned about turmoil in Washington, which stems in part from CIA and FBI warnings that Russian intelligence services sought to help swing the election to Trump.

“You should know we do not interfere in the domestic matters of other countries,” Lavrov said, with no visible hint of irony.

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Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speaks during a joint press conference on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017 with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg prior to a NATO Defence Ministers Meeting at its headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.