Donald Trump has defended his congratulations to Vladimir Putin on the Russian President’s disputed re-election victory, following reports he was explicitly warned in a pre-phone call briefing not to congratulate the leader.
Mr Trump drew fire from Republicans and Democrats alike for telling reporters that he had congratulated Mr Putin and that the two leaders had made tentative plans to meet in the “not too distant future”.
The Washington Post reported that Mr Trump, in his briefing papers to prepare for the phone call with Mr Putin, was specifically warned “do not congratulate” the Russian President.
White House officials did not dispute the report, but said whoever leaked it could be subject to dismissal.
A confidant of Mr Trump, who asked not to be named, said the President was angry about the leak, and a White House official said chief of staff John Kelly was “frustrated and deeply disappointed”.
In a pair of tweets on his call with Mr Putin, Mr Trump said US news organisations “wanted me to excoriate him. They are wrong! Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing”.
“They can help solve problems with North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, ISIS, Iran and even the coming Arms Race,” Mr Trump said.
@realDonaldTrump:I called President Putin of Russia to congratulate him on his election victory (in past, Obama called him also).
Mr Trump’s congratulations to Mr Putin, which came shortly after he joined Britain in blaming Russia for a poison nerve gas attack against a former Russian spy in southern England, has revived criticism that Mr Trump has been too tolerant of the Russian leader.
Mr Trump is under investigation by US special counsel Robert Mueller on whether he or his aides colluded with Russia during the 2016 presidential election that Mr Trump won.
Mr Trump has called the probe a political witch hunt.
His overture to Mr Putin has drawn heavy fire by critics who called Sunday’s election rigged.
Senator John McCain, a longtime critic of Mr Putin, said “an American president does not lead the free world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections”.
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said there was a “lack of credibility in tallying the result”.
Administration officials said it was unclear if the President had seen the briefing memo that was leaked to the Post.
“If this story is accurate, that means someone leaked the President’s briefing papers. Leaking such information is a fireable offense and likely illegal,” a senior White House official, who requested anonymity, said.
Republican senator Marco Rubio said he did not like Mr Trump’s congratulations to Mr Putin, but thought the leak was worse.
“If you don’t like the guy, quit. But to be this duplicitous and continue to leak things out, it’s dangerous,” Senator Rubio said.
The leak incident was likely to revive questions about whether Mr Trump would embark on more turnover in his senior staff after the departure of Rex Tillerson as secretary of state.
Mr Trump’s national security adviser, Herbert Raymond McMaster, is widely seen as likely to leave at some point, and Mr Kelly himself is said by Trump confidants to have tested the nerves of the President.