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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 October 2018

Pentagon, State Department cannot confirm Trump-Putin 'agreements'

Putin hailed the Helsinki summit as a 'successful' meeting that led 'to useful agreements'

In this file photo taken on July 16, 2018, US President Donald Trump (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands ahead a meeting in Helsinki. AFP
In this file photo taken on July 16, 2018, US President Donald Trump (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands ahead a meeting in Helsinki. AFP

Despite the rosy rhetoric from both US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin about “useful agreements” reached at the Helsinki summit on Monday, neither the US Defense Department nor the State Department could confirm such understandings.

Mr Putin, in a speech to Russian diplomats in Moscow on Thursday, hailed the Helsinki summit as "successful overall and led to useful agreements."

Mr Trump calling the summit a “great success,” tweeting that he is looking forward to the 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.”

But across his administration there was a different sentiment. US officials at both the State Department and Defense Department were not able to confirm any of the agreements that Mr Trump has been referencing, and in some cases contradicted the US President on some of the ideas floated in the two-hour meeting with Mr Putin.

A senior US State Department official played down the public outcry about the meeting. “Nothing of substance has changed from what it was before the meeting”, the official who spoke on condition of anonymity told The National. He argued that, Mr Trump’s rhetoric aside, the policy trajectory for Washington remains the same.

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The US State Department was also at odds with the White House over Russia’s request to question 11 US citizens including former ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul. While the White House said the request is under consideration, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert called it “absurd”.

“The overall assertions that have come out of the Russian government are absolutely absurd...We do not stand by those assertions that the Russian government makes,” she said.

At the Pentagon, Joseph Votel, the top commander of US forces in the Middle East, said in a teleconference on Thursday that he has received “no new guidance as of yet” on cooperating with Russia in Syria following the Helsinki talks.

“Steady as she goes,” he said of the US approach in Syria. “Any space for [changes alongside Russia] would have to be created by Congress… I have not asked for that” General Votel said. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed by Congress, restricts defence cooperation and coordination with Russia beyond the scope of deconfliction. Any change to the policy would require legislative approval.

Asked about Israel’s security as one item on the Putin-Trump agenda, the Centcom commander said: "I’m not privy to any kind of grand bargain discussion or anything like that...my mission remains ...completing the the defeat of ISIS." He also blamed Russian support to the Assad regime for exacerbating the human suffering.

The Russian Ministry of Defence announced on Wednesday that it’s "ready to activate contacts with US colleagues via general staffs and other existing communication channels to discuss extending Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, cooperation in Syria, other current issues of ensuring military security." US defence officials are still not confirming such cooperation.

But even with the US military and diplomatic corp playing down the impact of the Trump-Putin summit, the public outcry continued on Thursday. Republicans in Congress blocked a Democratic motion to subpoena Marina Gross, the interpreter in the Trump-Putin meeting.

Meanwhile, the Republican-led Senate effectively rebuked the president for considering Russia’s request. In a resolution adopted 98-0 on Thursday, senators called on the US to refuse to make any officials available for interrogation by Putin’s government. Minutes before the vote was scheduled to begin, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a statement rejecting the Russian proposal.

“It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by president Putin, but president Trump disagrees with it,” Mrs Sanders said. A day earlier she didn’t shoot down the idea, instead saying Mr Trump was “going to meet with his team” about it.

She also said that president Trump had asked National Security Advisor John Bolton to invite president Putin to Washington in the fall and that discussions about the trip are underway:

The measure that forced the White House’s hand is nonbinding. But the vote marked a rare decision by Republican leader Mitch McConnell to take up a resolution written by top Democrat Chuck Schumer undercutting the GOP president.

“Let this resolution be a warning to the administration that Congress will not allow this to happen,” Mr Schumer of New York said on the Senate floor just before the vote. “I call on President Trump to say once and for all, not through his spokespeople, that the lopsided, disgraceful trade he called an ‘incredible offer’ is off the table.”