Editor’s Note: Trump’s about face took place minutes before a scheduled senate vote that opposed his plan to turn American citizens over to Putin.
By Steve Holland and Andrew Osborn
WASHINGTON/MOSCOW (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump rejected Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proposal that Russian authorities be allowed to question American citizens, the White House said on Thursday, after the offer drew fierce criticism in the United States.
After their summit on Monday in Helsinki, Putin described the proposal when he was asked about the possible extradition of 12 Russian intelligence officers indicted last Friday in the United States on charges of meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The offer Putin described was to permit American law enforcement officials to observe questioning by Russian officials of the indicted Russians in exchange for letting Russian investigators question Americans on other matters, specifically mentioning a case involving London-based financier Bill Browder, a onetime investor in Russia.
“It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement. “Hopefully President Putin will have the 12 identified Russians come to the United States to prove their innocence or guilt.”
Trump on Monday called the idea “an incredible offer.” The White House said on Wednesday that Trump was considering the proposal, drawing a barrage of criticism from his fellow Republicans as well as Democrats.
As the U.S. Senate on Thursday prepared to vote on a resolution putting Congress in opposition to allowing any U.S. officials to be questioned by Russia, the White House made its announcement rejecting the offer.
It was the latest about-face from the White House as it struggled to quiet an uproar over Trump’s failure to confront Putin over Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
Trump on Tuesday said he misspoke during a joint news conference in Helsinki when he said he did not see why Russia would meddle in the election. On Wednesday, Trump answered “no” to a reporter’s question on whether Russia was still targeting the United States, only to have Sanders say hours later he was saying “no” to answering any questions – not to the question itself.
On Wednesday, the Russian Prosecutor General’s office listed Americans it wanted to question for “illegal activities,” including Michael McFaul, who was U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration.
“That’s not going to happen,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CBN News on Thursday.
“I don’t think there is one member of Congress, on either side of the aisle, that believes it is remotely smart to require our former ambassador, Mr. Browder or any other person to submit to interviews by Putin’s government,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said. “Because there is no rule of law, as I said, in Russia. There is just rule of Putin.”
Earlier on Thursday, both Trump and Putin blamed forces within the United States on Thursday for marring what they called the success of their first summit, with Trump saying he looked forward to their second meeting.
The Republican president accused the news media of distorting comments in which he gave credence to Putin’s denials of election interference despite the conclusions of the American intelligence community about Moscow’s conduct.
“The Summit with Russia was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
“I look forward to our second meeting so that we can start implementing some of the many things discussed, including stopping terrorism, security for Israel, nuclear proliferation, cyber attacks, trade, Ukraine, Middle East peace, North Korea and more,” Trump said.
In Moscow, Putin said “powerful” U.S. forces were trying to sabotage the summit’s achievements, but said he and Trump had begun to improve U.S.-Russia ties anyway.
“It was successful overall and led to some useful agreements. Of course, let’s see how events will develop further,” Putin said in remarks to Russian diplomats from around the world, without disclosing the nature of the agreements to which he referred.
“We see that there are forces in the United States that are prepared to casually sacrifice Russian-U.S. relations, to sacrifice them for their ambitions in an internal political battle in the United States,” Putin said.
Putin did not name names, but spoke of U.S. politicians who put their “narrow party interests” above the best interests of the United States and were powerful enough to be able to foist their questionable “stories” on millions of Americans.
Republican and Democratic U.S. lawmakers grappled with Trump’s conflicting statements about the summit as well as what they did not know: exactly what the two leaders discussed in their private meeting and what agreements, if any, were reached.
Republicans voted down a motion offered by Democrats in the House of Representatives intelligence committee to subpoena the American interpreter who witnessed Trump’s meeting with Putin.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said he asked two Senate panels to recommend additional action aimed at preventing future Russian election meddling and hold hearings on an existing Russia sanctions law.
American intelligence agencies last year announced their conclusion that Russia carried out a campaign of hacking and propaganda targeting the 2016 U.S. election in an attempt to sow discord, disparage Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and aid Trump’s candidacy. Putin has denied any such meddling.
(Reporting by Steve Holland, Doina Chiacu, Richard Cowan, Lisa Lambert, Susan Heavey in Washington and Andrew Osborn and Olesya Astakhova in Moscow; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Will Dunham)