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Combative Donald Trump pulls his punches for one man: Vladimir Putin

Washington has scratched its collective head over Trump's curious affinity for strongman of Kremlin

Peter Baker | NYT 

Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin
Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin

The roster of villains in President Trump’s world is legion. The list of people he has been willing, even eager, to publicly attack includes not just Mitch McConnell, his latest target, but Jeff Sessions, Chuck Schumer, Paul D. Ryan, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

And don’t forget James B. Comey, Robert S. Mueller III, Andrew G. McCabe, Rod J. Rosenstein, John D. Podesta, Nancy Pelosi, Lisa Murkowski, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rosie O’Donnell, Meryl Streep, the mayor of London and the cast of “Saturday Night Live.” The countries he has assailed include not just North Korea and Iran but also Germany, Canada, Mexico, China and Sweden.

But for all of that feistiness, for all of those verbal and online fisticuffs, there is one person who is definitely not on Mr. Trump’s target list: President Vladimir V. of

Ever since Mr. jumped into political life, Washington has scratched its collective head over his curious affinity for the strongman of the Kremlin. But the president’s determination to avoid saying anything even remotely critical of Mr. was brought home in stark relief on Thursday when he twisted himself into a knot over a question about the Russian leader’s decision to order the United States Embassy to slash its staff by more than half. Rather than complain, Mr. expressed gratitude.

“I want to thank him because we’re trying to cut down on payroll,” Mr. told reporters at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. “And as far as I’m concerned, I’m very thankful that he let go of a large number of people because now we have a smaller payroll. There’s no real reason for them to go back. So I greatly appreciate the fact that they’ve been able to cut our payroll for the United States. We’ll save a lot of money.”

On Twitter, many initially assumed that quote was from The Onion, the ripped-from-the-headlines satirical newspaper that has long mocked presidents and politicians by exaggerating their better-known traits. But even the cutting-edge Onion has a hard time keeping up with today’s head-spinning news events.

Speaking to reporters again on Friday, Mr. said his comment from the day before was only meant to be sarcastic. But he still offered no criticism of Mr. Putin, and Mr. Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, did not respond to a question about why the president remains so reluctant to do so.

Mr. has long expressed admiration for Mr. even as American politicians of both parties have denounced the Russian leader for fomenting a separatist war in Ukraine, trying to destabilize the West, bolstering President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and collaborating with Iran. In the years leading up to his election, Mr. expressed repeated praise for Mr. Putin, calling him “so nice” and a “strong leader” who was doing an “amazing job.” When interviewers asked him about the killing of so many opposition leaders and journalists, Mr. has brushed it off by saying even the United States has engaged in killing.

Mr. Trump’s latest comment came just a week after he posted a message on Twitter blaming the deterioration in relations with Moscow on Congress for passing sanctions on The sanctions were passed to punish for interfering in last year’s American presidential election and seizing its neighbor’s territory by annexing Crimea, but Mr. made no mention of those actions.

Mr. Putin’s response to the sanctions was to seize two American diplomatic properties and order the United States to cut 755 positions from its embassy and consulates by Sept. 1, the most sweeping such action against American interests in in decades and a decision that typically would have drawn at least a polite letter of complaint by previous presidents, if not a full-throated condemnation.

Most of those who will lose their jobs will be Russian nationals who work for the embassy in nonsensitive positions. Any American diplomats who might have to leave will almost certainly be entitled to keep their jobs and be reassigned to the State Department headquarters or other home agencies in Washington or other overseas postings.

Whether Mr. Trump’s response was intended to be sarcastic or not, longtime policy makers said they were astonished.

“It is outrageous that he would thank for anything, given everything has done to attack American sovereignty and how poorly the Russian government has treated American personnel posted in Russia,” said Evelyn Farkas, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former deputy assistant defense secretary under Mr. Obama.

“The president appears completely determined to find no fault with anything does,” she added. “What if threatened Guam with a military attack?”

David J. Kramer, a former assistant secretary of state under President George W. Bush and now a senior fellow at Florida University, noted that Mr. Obama expelled 35 diplomats and seized two compounds before leaving office in retaliation for the election meddling.

“Putin’s decision to force cuts in the embassy staff by 755 positions and seizing two compounds is actually an escalation, not retaliation for what we did, and wholly undeserving of any praise,” he said.

Given Mr. Trump’s propensity to criticize just about anyone else, including members of his own staff, cabinet and party, his resolute refusal to say anything negative about Mr. has only fueled suspicions about last year’s election. While Mr. adamantly denies any collusion between his team and during the campaign, an email sent to his son, Jr., last summer setting up a meeting with a Russian lawyer with Kremlin ties said the visit was “part of and its government’s support for Mr.

Mr. lately has tried to argue that actually worked against his campaign because he has moved to increase military spending and energy supplies and that, if anything, it was Mrs. Clinton who had the support of the Kremlin. That is not how investigators working for Mr. Mueller, the special counsel, or the House and Senate Intelligence Committees see it.

“They’re investigating something that never happened,” Mr. complained on Thursday. “There was no collusion between and In fact, the opposite. spent a lot of money on fighting me. And if you think about it, I want a strong military. You see our budget is up by — it will be hundreds of billions of dollars, our military budget. doesn’t like that. Hillary was going to cut the budget substantially, the military budget.”

Some foreign policy scholars said that even if there was nothing untoward between the campaign and Russia, the president and his team may be soft-pedaling criticism of Mr. in hopes of striking a grand bargain on Syria and the Islamic State.

“Trump’s consistent reluctance to say even a halfway critical word about is bewildering,” said Andrew Weiss, a former adviser to Mr. Clinton now at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. “continues to cling to this idea” that teaming up with Moscow on the Middle East and China “is an essential element of his foreign policy strategy.

“Unfortunately,” he concluded, “it’s a totally unfounded and unworkable way of thinking about the world, let alone running U.S. foreign policy.”

The New York Times

First Published: Sat, August 12 2017. 11:00 IST