Trump Plans To Invite Putin For Autumn Visit, Top Spy Boss Coats Caught Off Guard
Updated at 5:20 p.m. ET
President Trump wants to invite Russian President Vladimir Putin for a visit to Washington this autumn, the White House said on Thursday.
Press secretary Sarah Sanders said that Trump and Putin had agreed at their summit on Monday in Finland that their security staffs would have an "ongoing working-level dialogue" and as part of that, Trump told national security adviser John Bolton to invite Putin to the United States.
That came as news to Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who was being interviewed onstage at the Aspen Security Forum on Thursday when the announcement took place.
"Say that again?" Coats said when told of the invitation. "OK," he said. "That's going to be special."
Coats said earlier in his interview with NBC News anchor Andrea Mitchell that he doesn't know what Trump and Putin discussed during the more than two hours they met behind closed doors.
Coats said he wouldn't have counseled Trump to meet with Putin one-on-one in this way, but that he wasn't asked and offering that kind of advice isn't his "role."
"It is what it is," Coats said.
As the U.S. government follows up on the summit, it isn't clear whether the American side has notes or recordings or is working solely off Trump's recollection.
National security officials in the United States have been trying to assess what to make of statements from Moscow about agreements it says the two leaders reached during their meeting.
Coats said he stood by his statement from earlier in the week reasserting that Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election, which appeared along with other responses contradicting the statements about interference that Trump made in his news conference with Putin.
Administration officials have been trying amend that and other comments in a week-long series of row-backs.
Trump said on Monday that didn't believe Russia had interfered in the 2016 election — but then he said he does.
Next, Trump said he didn't believe Russian intelligence is continuing to target the United States now — but then the White House said Trump does.
Then on Thursday, the White House said that it has ruled out making a former diplomat or other Americans available to Russian interrogators following a wave of criticism of that idea.
Press secretary Sanders said in an announcement that Trump now won't go along with Putin's proposal from their summit that the two governments should exchange people of interest to each other's investigators.
"It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it," Sanders said. "Hopefully, President Putin will have the 12 identified Russians come to the United States to prove their innocence or guilt."
Sanders was referring to 12 intelligence officers in Russia's military spy agency, the GRU, who were charged in an indictment on Friday that linked them to the cyberattacks in 2016 against American political targets and state-level elections infrastructure.
Putin responded to questions about extraditing them to stand trial in the United States by asking whether the U.S. government would agree to make Americans of interest to Russia available for questioning.
At the time, Trump called that "an incredible offer."
The Senate voted 98 to 0 on Thursday on a resolution condemning the idea.
Man in the middle
A former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, says Putin is obsessed with an imaginary scheme to undermine the Russian government that McFaul supposedly conducted from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.
McFaul worried about Trump permitting that story to take flight and the idea that the administration might hand him over to Russia or force him to answer questions following years of personal harassment by Putin.
The former diplomat, who has now returned to Stanford, thanked the Senate on Thursday for its expression of support.
98-0. Bipartisanship is not dead yet in the US Senate. Thank you all for your support.— Michael McFaul (@McFaul) July 19, 2018
Granting any credibility to the "undermining Putin" scheme meant the White House was "playing into Russia's hands," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told reporters on Thursday.
Corker said that although the president has wide discretion to conduct foreign affairs, he might have gone too far in Helsinki, adding that he wants to question Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about the summit at a hearing next week.
"The president does have the ability to meet with anybody he wishes," Corker said. "I think this one, especially the presentation that was made at the end, was disconcerting to most Americans and certainly was to me."
"We're going to have Pompeo come in next week, and I think we'll be much better informed when that is over, as to what the intentions are, where they're trying to take this relationship, was there anything that was agreed to privately in those meetings."
The prospect that the United States might grant access to McFaul or others, in exchange for American investigators talking with Russians linked to cyberattacks, had been viewed as unlikely.
But after Trump seemed amenable to the idea on Monday in his press conference with Putin in Helsinki, Sanders suggested Wednesday that the administration was still evaluating it.
Critics said it was a mistake for the White House even to appear that it had been evaluating the idea of an interrogation exchange.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., wrote on Twitter earlier Thursday that he thought the White House must "publicly and unequivocally rule it out."
Under no circumstances should #Putin officials ever be allowed to come into the U.S. & “question” Americans on their list. I don’t believe this will ever be allowed to happen which is why the @WhiteHouse should publicly & unequivocally rule it out. https://t.co/bLDGJsSodi— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) July 19, 2018
And former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also weighed in on McFaul's behalf, calling him a "patriot" and writing, "To see the White House even hesitate to defend a diplomat is deeply troubling."
Ambassador @McFaul is a patriot who has spent his career standing up for America. To see the White House even hesitate to defend a diplomat is deeply troubling. https://t.co/gI8K8Tjg3M— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) July 19, 2018
One issue for administration officials before Thursday's climb-down appeared to be how receptive Trump had remained to the idea.
Another issue was that the idea was so novel that when the administration appeared to be contemplating it, no one seemed to be sure how an exchange might have worked.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Wednesday that although Putin's charges against McFaul and other Americans are "absolutely absurd," she was not prepared to speak on behalf of the department and say that her agency opposed the idea of some kind of handover.
"I believe some of this would fall under the Department of Justice, so I'd have to loop in the Department of Justice on this," she said. "This is something that just came out."
NPR correspondents Deirdre Walsh, Miles Parks and Ryan Lucas contributed to this report.