On Tuesday, President Trump said that he congratulated Russian President Vladimir Putin on his recent re-election. Later that day, the Washington Post reported that Trump had been specifically instructed by his national security team not to do this ("DO NOT CONGRATULATE" were the exact words in Trump's briefing, per the Post). On Wednesday, Trump defended his decision to congratulate Putin, writing in a series of tweets that repairing relations with Russia is "a good thing."
"Bush tried to get along, but didn’t have the 'smarts,'" Trump tweeted on Wednesday afternoon. "Obama and Clinton tried, but didn’t have the energy or chemistry (remember RESET). PEACE THROUGH STRENGTH!"
Russian elections are widely understood to be fraudulent, with the winners — Putin and his allies — determined far in advance. Opposition leaders are often prohibited from running against Putin (this happened in 2012 and again in 2018), and days before Sunday's elections, videos surfaced showing attacks on election monitors and widespread ballot-stuffing at polling sites across the country. Russian election specialist Sergei Sphilkin concluded that the most recent election counted roughly 10.3 million fraudulent votes for Putin.
For these reasons, American presidents often take a cautious approach after Russian presidential elections.
When Putin, who has effectively controlled Russia since 2000, won reelection in 2012, President Obama's team had a protracted internal debate about how Obama should respond, according to former U.S Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. Initially, the State Department released a statement congratulating "the Russian people on the completion of the presidential elections," but not praising Putin specifically. Several days later, however, Obama did call Putin to congratulate him on reelection, a fact the White House freely acknowledged on its website at the time.
The fact that Trump, following in Obama's footsteps, also congratulated Putin was initially reported by the Kremlin, according to the Post. The conversation was later confirmed by Trump himself, who told reporters that he "had a call with President Putin and congratulated him on the victory, his electoral victory."
Later in the day, though, sources told the Post that Trump's national security team had given him briefing materials instructing him to not congratulate Putin. It's unclear whether Trump read the briefing materials, and the Post also reported that H.R. McMaster, Trump's beleaguered National Security Advisor, didn't bring up the topic during a telephone briefing with the president around the same time.
Trump's decision to congratulate Putin drew a rebuke from Sen. John McCain, a Russia hawk and occasional critic of the president.
“An American president does not lead the Free World by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections," McCain tweeted on Tuesday. "And by doing so with Vladimir Putin, President Trump insulted every Russian citizen who was denied the right to vote in a free and fair election.”
According to CNN, Trump was "fuming" at the reports that he had ignored explicit instructions from his advisers not to congratulate Putin, in large part because only a small handful of staffers had knowledge of those briefing materials. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is reportedly furious as well, and one senior White House officials told CNN that the leaking of such information "is a fireable offense and likely illegal." The CNN report suggests that White House staffers are far more upset about the leak itself than about Trump's decision to congratulate the Russian president.
When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez won reelection in 2012, Trump criticized Obama for giving Chavez a congratulatory call, and suggested that the Venezuelan president secretly wanted Obama to win the upcoming U.S. presidential election.
"How long did it take for Obama to call Hugo Chavez and congratulate him on his 'reelection?,'" Trump tweeted. "Who do you think Chavez supports in ours?"