President Trump signed two more executive actions while at the Pentagon for the swearing-in ceremony of his Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
WASHINGTON — President Trump and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin spoke by phone Saturday and agreed to establish “real coordination” to “crush ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria,” the Kremlin said, referring to the Islamic State.
Cooperation with Russia in Syria would represent a break with current policy and a rift among Republican foreign policy leaders. Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., on Friday warned Trump against cooperating too closely with Putin, whom he accused of propping up a “murderous regime” in Syria.
The Kremlin’s statement, issued before one put out by the White House, said nothing about reports that Trump is considering lifting sanctions on Russia. McCain also warned Trump not to ease up on sanctions, saying he would work in Congress to give them the force of law.
The Kremlin said the two presidents also discussed “major aspects of the Ukrainian crisis,” as well discussing “possible dates and venue of their personal meeting.” The two also agreed to “maintain regular personal contacts.”
Russia boosted its military support to the regime in Syria in 2015 after it appeared rebels trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad were threatening his hold on power. Moscow claimed that its airstrikes in Syria were aimed at terrorists. The White House, State Department and Pentagon maintained that Russian attacks primarily targeted moderate opponents of Assad and not the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, and al-Qaeda-linked terrorists.
The Pentagon and Russian military have established communication links to prevent accidents between warplanes. The Pentagon has stressed that this effort does not indication cooperation with the Russian military.
McCain labeled Putin a “murderer and a thug” and said he would he would “never will never be our partner, including in fighting ISIL.”
“Russia has propped up the murderous Assad regime as it has waged war on the Syrian people and killed more than 400,000 civilians,” McCain said in a statement. “Russia’s military has targeted Syrian hospitals and first responders with precision weapons. Instead of targeting ISIL, Russia has focused its operations against the moderate Syrian opposition, which has only empowered extremist forces in the country.”
The call with Putin and other world leaders capped off a dizzying nine-day stretch in Trump appeared to be in perpetual motion, signing 15 executive actions, speaking to 11 world leaders, visiting three federal agencies and, on Friday, hosting British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Trump spoke on Saturday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President François Hollande and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Trump assured Abe of the U.S. commitment to Japan’s security, according to the White House. Trump and Abe also discussed Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ trip to Japan and South Korea this week and the threat from North Korea. They spoke about deepening trade ties days after Trump dumped the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an Asia-Pacific trade deal. The leaders plan to hold a meeting at the White House on Feb. 10.
He assured Merkel of the U.S. commitment to NATO.
The most significant call was with Putin, whose interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election has led to questions about Trump’s relationship to the Russian leader and strained Trump’s relationship with the intelligence community.
“I don’t know the gentleman,” Trump said in a press conference with May on Friday. “I hope we have a fantastic relationship. That’s possible, and it’s also possible that we won’t. We will see what happens.”
Trump said the fight against the Islamic State would be at the top of his agenda. But Putin has also been chafing under U.S. and European sanctions imposed by President Obama over Russia’s invasion of Crimea and the computer hacking of Democratic Party email accounts during the campaign.
Trump declined to discuss the sanctions issue during a joint news conference Friday with May.
“As far as the sanctions, very early to be talking about that,” Trump said. “But we look to have a great relationship with all countries, ideally.”
Heading into Saturday’s other phone calls, Trump criticized Germany and France for their refugee policies, claiming they led to terrorist incidents in those countries. He criticized Merkel by name, accusing her at one point of “ruining Germany.”
Trump is also scheduled to sign still more executive orders. Although the White House has not disclosed the topics, Trump had planned to sign a directive to the attorney general to investigate voter fraud on Thursday, but the signing was postponed because “he got jammed up on some meetings,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said.
Trump gave a number of interviews in his first week in which he insisted that he lost the popular vote only because millions of votes were cast fraudulently. The spurious claim appears to be based on reports of voter registration errors, but election officials of both parties say those errors are the result of out-of-date records and that actual voter fraud is exceptionally rare.
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