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1ST LEAD White House defends Trump's congratulations call to Putin By Frank Fuhrig, dpa

By our dpa-correspondent and Europe Online    auf Facebook posten  Auf Twitter posten  
Washington (dpa) - US President Donald Trump congratulated Russian President Vladimir Putin on his re-election to a fourth term in office during a telephone conversation, drawing criticism Tuesday from opposition Democrats and even a fellow Republican in Congress.

The White House defended the necessity of "dialogue" with the Kremlin.

Putin won another six-year term Sunday, in an election that came under international criticism for lacking genuine competition, and was marred by allegations of fraud.

"I had a call with President Putin, and congratulated him on the victory," Trump told reporters at the White House.

He described the conversation as "a very good call" and said that he and Putin "will probably get together in the not-too-distant future, so that we can discuss the arms race."

An as yet unscheduled meeting would have Ukraine, Syria and North Korea on the agenda, Trump said.

The Kremlin confirmed Tuesday that Trump had congratulated Putin on the result of the election in a "constructive and businesslike" conversation "focused on overcoming the problems that have accumulated in Russian-US relations," state news agency TASS reported.

Senator John McCain, the 2008 presidential nominee for Trump‘s Republican Party, blasted the right-wing populist for celebrating Putin‘s election.

"An American president does not lead the free world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections," said McCain, who has been a frequent Trump critic within the conservative party.

In the House of Representatives, opposition Democrats on the Foreign Affairs Committee issued a statement ridiculing Trump‘s comments.

"Putin stages a phony election, disqualifies opponents, further strips the Russian people of their rights, and celebrates another six years of corrupt, kleptocratic rule," staff for Democratic members tweeted. "What does #Trump do? Congratulates him, naturally."

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said that Trump values communicating about "areas of shared interests" with Russia.

"The president finds there to be an importance in having that dialogue with Russia, so that we can talk about some of the big problems that face the world," she said.

There are no "specific plans laid out at this time" for a Trump-Putin meeting, Sanders said.

She refused to say if the Russian election was free and fair.

"What we do know is Putin has been elected in their country, and that‘s not something that we can dictate to them, how they operate," Sanders said. "We can only focus on the freeness and the fairness of our elections, something we 100 per cent fully support."

Sanders said she was not aware of any mention during the call of Russia‘s alleged meddling in the 2016 election, which has set off a wide-ranging investigation by a special counsel to the Justice Department.

At the weekend, Trump‘s lawyer called for a halt to the probe, which has examined possible links between Moscow and the president‘s campaign. Trump himself tweeted that the investigation - initiated by an official he appointed - is unfairly partisan and "should never have been started."

Sanders said she believed there was no mention between Trump and Putin of Moscow‘s escalating dispute with Britain over the poisonings this month in southern England of Russian ex-spy turned double agent Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia.

"It certainly looks like the Russians were behind it," Trump said last week.

Russia has denied any involvement in the attack on the Skripals, who have been hospitalized in critical conditions since they were found unconscious on a park bench on March 4 in Salisbury, England.


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