MOSCOW — President Donald Trump called Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday to congratulate him on his re-election to a fourth term, and they discussed arranging a meeting against the backdrop of heightened tensions between their two nations over election meddling.
Trump told reporters in the Oval Office that the meeting could happen soon and they would likely follow up on Putin’s recent declaration that he does not want an arms race with the United States.
“I suspect that we’ll probably be meeting in the not too distant future to discuss the arms race, which is getting out of control, but we will never allow anybody to have anything even close to what we have,” Trump said. “Also to discuss Ukraine, Syria and North Korea and various other things.”
The Kremlin said in a statement the two presidents spoke about the need to “coordinate efforts to limit the arms race” and for closer cooperation on strategic stability and counterterrorism.
“Special attention was given to considering the issue of a possible bilateral summit,” the Kremlin statement said.
In addition, Trump and Putin expressed satisfaction with the apparent easing of tensions over North Korea’s weapons program, according to the Kremlin.
No details were released about the timing or location of the possible meeting, which would be the third since Trump took office in January 2017. They met on the sidelines of an international summit in Germany last summer and again more informally at another gathering of world leaders in Vietnam in November.
The presidents “agreed to develop further bilateral contacts, taking into account changes in the U.S. State Department,” the Kremlin statement said in a reference to Trump’s decision to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Russia has repeatedly said it hoped for better ties with the U.S. under Trump.
Trump’s call came after the White House imposed sanctions on Russia for its interference in the 2016 election and other “malicious cyberattacks.” The U.S. also has sharply criticized Russia for its apparent role in a nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter on British soil.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying the two leaders didn’t discuss the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Britain. British officials have blamed the nerve agent attack on Russia. Russia has denied the accusation.
Trump ignored a shouted question in the Oval Office on whether he raised the poisoning in the call with Putin.
Trump came under criticism from Republican Sen. John McCain for congratulating Putin on winning another six-year term in an election whose outcome was never in doubt.
“An American president does not lead the Free World by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections,” said McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee and has pressed the Trump administration to respond aggressively to Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential election.
The White House said Monday that it was “not surprised by the outcome” of Sunday’s presidential election in Russia and that no congratulatory call was planned.
Putin received calls from a number of other foreign leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Many others, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, sent congratulatory telegrams.
Trump continues to grapple with the shadow of the ongoing investigation into whether his campaign colluded with Russian officials during the 2016 election.
Last month, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian individuals and three organizations on charges of interfering in the election. Three of Trump’s associates — former national security adviser Michael Flynn, deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates and campaign aide George Papadopoulos — have pleaded guilty to lying to investigators and agreed to cooperate. Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort has pleaded not guilty to a variety of money laundering and other criminal charges.