Trump to Invite Putin to Washington, Blindsiding His Intelligence Chief

President Trump was shown clear evidence on Jan. 6, 2017, that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had ordered cyberattacks to sway the 2016 election. But his statements since have suggested other explanations.

WASHINGTON — President Trump plans to invite President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to visit Washington in the fall, the White House said Thursday — an invitation that stunned the nation’s top intelligence official, who said he was still groping for details of what the two leaders had discussed in their encounter this week in Helsinki, Finland.

“Say that again,” the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, replied when Andrea Mitchell of NBC broke the news while interviewing him at a security conference in Aspen, Colo. “O.K.,” Mr. Coats said, taking a deep breath and chuckling awkwardly. “That’s going to be special.”

The announcement came as the White House spent a third day trying to explain statements made by Mr. Trump after the Helsinki meeting, and as uncertainty spread throughout the government about whether he had reached agreements with Mr. Putin on Syria and Ukraine, leaving his military and diplomatic corps in the dark.

Yielding to intense criticism, Mr. Trump rejected a proposal by Mr. Putin for Russia to question American citizens, including a former ambassador to Moscow, Michael A. McFaul, in return for giving the United States access to 12 Russian military intelligence officers indicted on charges of trying to sabotage the 2016 presidential election.

Two hours after the press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, issued that reversal, she said on Twitter that Mr. Trump had asked his national security adviser, John R. Bolton, to invite Mr. Putin, framing the decision as part of a dialogue that began in Helsinki and would continue at lower levels until the Russian president comes to Washington.

Beyond saying the meeting would be in the fall, the White House did not announce a date. That means Mr. Trump could meet Mr. Putin again before the midterm elections, giving him a chance to redress the widespread criticism of how he handled the first meeting and possibly injecting further volatility into the campaigns.

Credit...Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

But to Mr. Coats, who has been at odds with Mr. Trump about whether Russia meddled in the election, the prospect of another one-on-one encounter was clearly rattling. He said he would “look for a different way of doing it,” and expressed frustration that Mr. Trump had opted to meet Mr. Putin in Helsinki with only their interpreters in the room.

“If he had asked me how that ought to be conducted,” Mr. Coats said, “I would have suggested a different way. But that’s not my role; that’s not my job. So, it is what it is.”

Mr. Coats said he expected that the details of the meeting would trickle out in the coming weeks. But with Mr. Trump not giving a full account, some officials worry that the Russians now control the narrative. On Thursday, Bloomberg News reported that Mr. Putin told diplomats that he proposed to Mr. Trump holding a referendum to help resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Inundated with questions, the White House was either unable or unwilling to respond. A spokesman for the National Security Council said: “Presidents Trump and Putin discussed a wide range of national security issues in Helsinki. The U.S. position on Ukraine remains the same.”

(The Justice Department, for its part, described on Thursday its plan for countering cyberattacks and foreign influence campaigns, like Russia’s effort to intervene in the 2016 election.)

In a tweet Thursday morning, Mr. Trump said he looked forward to a second meeting with Mr. Putin “so that we can start implementing some of the many things discussed.” He listed Ukraine, Israel’s security, nuclear proliferation, trade, North Korea, and Middle East peace.



Watch Dan Coats Find Out Trump Invited Putin to the White House

The director of national intelligence was being interviewed live when he learned President Trump had invited the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, to the White House for a meeting in the fall.

“We have some breaking news. The White House has announced on Twitter that Vladimir Putin is coming to the White House in the fall.” “Say that again?” [Audience laughs] “You —” “Vladimir Putin, coming to the —” “Did I hear you —” “Yeah. Yeah.” “O.K.” “That’s going to be special.”

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The director of national intelligence was being interviewed live when he learned President Trump had invited the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, to the White House for a meeting in the fall.CreditCredit...Leah Millis/Reuters

At the Pentagon, Mr. Trump’s reference to Ukraine alarmed officials, who have tried to reassure skittish European allies that the United States will stand with them to prevent Russia from carrying out the same predatory moves it imposed there.

Days before the summit meeting, military officials pressed the National Security Council for Mr. Trump’s proposed talking points and received no response. The lack of information handcuffed General Joseph L. Votel, the head of United States Central Command, at a news conference on Thursday.

“We have received no further direction than we’ve currently been operating under,” he said.

If there was confusion about the future of Ukraine and Syria, there were open signs of dissent over Mr. Trump’s receptiveness to a proposal by Mr. Putin that he turn over Americans to Russia as part of a politically-motivated case against William F. Browder, an American-born financier who has been highly critical of the Russian president.

“Yeah, that’s not going to happen,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, scheduled to air on Friday. “The administration is not going to send, force Americans to travel to Russia to be interrogated by Vladimir Putin and his team.”

Mr. Trump had praised the proposal on Monday as an “incredible offer.” Two days later, Ms. Sanders said he still viewed it as an “interesting idea” and was discussing it with his staff.

But senior officials recoiled at the idea of turning over Americans to Russia; one aide insisted that the idea had not gained traction in the government. A parade of prominent diplomats and other former officials expressed outrage that Mr. Trump was even considering it.



How Trump Dodged Questions About Russian Election Meddling

During a news conference with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, President Trump would not say whether he believed Russia meddled with the 2016 presidential election.

Reporter: “Do you hold Russia at all accountable for anything in particular? And if so, what would you, what would you, consider them, that they are responsible for?” “Yes, I do. I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish. I think we’re all to blame. I think that the United States now has stepped forward, along with Russia, and we’re getting together and we have a chance to do some great things. I do feel that we have both made some mistakes.” Reporter: “For President Putin, if I could follow up as well. Why should Americans and why should President Trump believe your statement that Russia did not intervene in the 2016 election, given the evidence that U.S. intelligence agencies have provided. And will you consider extraditing the 12 Russian officials that were indicted last week by a U.S. grand jury?” “Well, I’m going to let the president answer the second part of that question, but just to say it one time again, and I say it all the time, there was no collusion. I didn’t know the president. There was nobody to collude with.” Reporter: “Thank you. Question for each president, President Trump, you first. Just now, President Putin denied having anything to do with the election interference in 2016. Every U.S. intelligence agency has concluded that Russia did. Who do you believe? My second question is: Would you now, with the whole world watching, tell President Putin, would you denounce what happened in 2016 and would you warn him to never do it again?” “So let me just say that we have two thoughts. You have groups that are wondering why the F.B.I. never took the server. Why haven’t they taken the server? My people came to me. Dan Coats came to me, and some others, they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this. I don’t see any reason why it would be. But I really do want to see the server. But I have confidence in both parties. I have great confidence in my intelligence people. But I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today, and what he did is an incredible offer. He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with respect to the 12 people. I think that’s an incredible offer. O.K.? Thank you.”

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During a news conference with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, President Trump would not say whether he believed Russia meddled with the 2016 presidential election.CreditCredit...Doug Mills/The New York Times

By Thursday afternoon, Ms. Sanders said in a statement, “It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it. Hopefully, President Putin will have the 12 identified Russians come to the United States to prove their innocence or guilt.”

Under the deal floated by Mr. Putin, Russia would have allowed the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, to question the 12 intelligence officers accused last week of hacking the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

In return, Mr. Trump would have granted access to Americans who Russia claims were involved in illegal dealings with Mr. Browder, who was blacklisted and convicted of tax evasion by Russia after he campaigned against corruption in the Russian business world.

Among those on the list is Mr. McFaul, a Stanford professor and Russia scholar who served in the White House and as ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama, as well as current and former officials from the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the intelligence agencies.

Mr. McFaul was critical of Mr. Putin and the Russian government during his tour in Moscow, and he has continued to write and speak about Russia. He described the proposal as “absolutely outrageous,” and said it was merely an attempt to intimidate him.

Since the Helsinki meeting, he has mounted a vigorous campaign on Twitter that drew support from an array of prominent figures, and the State Department has dismissed the allegations against him as “absurd.” Mrs. Clinton, a former secretary of state, said on Twitter: “Ambassador McFaul is a patriot who spent his career standing up for America. To see the White House even hesitate to defend a diplomat is deeply troubling.”

Four Democratic senators called for the Senate to pass a resolution demanding that the White House reject Mr. Putin’s proposal. “That President Trump would even consider handing over a former U.S. ambassador to Putin and his cronies for interrogation is bewildering,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader.

Legal experts said Mr. Trump had no authority to turn over Americans for questioning. The United States does not have an extradition treaty with Russia. Under a mutual legal assistance treaty between the two countries, the Justice Department can reject any request relating to a case it deems politically motivated — a classification it has long given to Russia’s case against Mr. Browder.

Still, the names on Russia’s list offered a telling glimpse into Mr. Putin’s grudges, as well as how he might have tried to appeal to Mr. Trump.

They include David J. Kramer, a former adviser to the State Department, now at the McCain Institute for International Leadership; Jonathan M. Winer, a former aide to Secretary of State John Kerry; and Todd Hyman, an official in the Department of Homeland Security.

What several of these people have in common is their involvement in, or support for, the Magnitsky Act, a law passed by Congress in 2012 that blacklisted Russian officials involved in human rights abuses. It was named for Sergei L. Magnitsky, a lawyer and auditor who worked for Mr. Browder and died after being beaten in his prison cell. Russian officials have long chafed at the Magnitsky Act and demanded that it be overturned.

Other people on the list have links to Christopher Steele, the British former intelligence agent who compiled a dossier claiming that the Russian government had compromising information about Mr. Trump and had conspired to hand the 2016 election to him.

Mr. Winer, who served as special envoy for Libya during the Obama administration, is a lawyer for Mr. Browder who knew Mr. Steele from his work on Russian organized crime during an earlier stint at the State Department. In September 2016, he circulated a two-page summary of Mr. Steele’s findings within the State Department.

Speaking before the White House’s statement, Mr. Winer said: “This is about harassment and intimidation by two people who wish to manipulate rule of law to go after one another’s opponents. It’s grossly abusive and in a rule of law country like the United States, it will go nowhere.”

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