There is a rift between President Donald Trump and both his national security and foreign policy advisers. According to a new Associated Press report, the top White House officials have continued to urge Trump to take a cautious approach when dealing with Russia and things have only gotten worse since a second meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin was revealed this week.
Trump defended the meeting in which the two leaders spoke privately only in the company of Putin's translator for roughly an hour. However, his top advisers, including National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, have grown worrisome of Trump's approach. As the AP reported:
Deep divisions are increasingly apparent within the administration on the best way to approach Moscow in the midst of U.S. investigations into Russian meddling in the American presidential election. Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that the Russian government sought to tip the election in his favor and has dismissed investigations into the possibility of collusion between his campaign and Moscow as a “witch hunt.”
McMaster has repeatedly warned the president not to trust Putin. The top foreign policy adviser disagreed with Trump's decision to meet with Russian diplomats in the Oval Office in May and expressed his disapproval to the president leading up to his trip to Germany for the G-20 summit. "McMaster and other national security aides also advised the president against holding an official bilateral meeting with Putin," the AP reported. McMaster did not attend last week's bilateral meeting, in what the AP described as a "highly unusual move."
In Trump's second meeting with Putin, the only other person present was Putin's translator, something that some have said is problematic. "The Russian interpreter probably interpreted very clearly, but the problem is there’s no record of the discussion on the American side," Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine told the AP. Pifer added that having Putin's translator take notes in order to keep a record would have been a better decision.
White House deputy press secretary repeatedly downplayed the significance of the meeting, saying that it's "absurd" that people have described the meeting as secret. However past officials have said that "characterizing any conversation with Putin as casual would be a mistake," the AP reported.
"There are no meaningless conversations between presidents," Jeffrey Edmonds, the National Security Council's former Russia director told the AP. "Relations have been at an all-time low because of Russian meddling in our elections and so it’s hard to see how a meeting with President Putin for an hour during dinner isn’t important."
One foreign official told the AP that U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials were left "dumbfounded." Two other foreign officials who have spoken with top Trump advisers told the AP that there are "mixed signals" indicating that the White House lacks a clear policy.
In a recent interview with the New York Times, the president said he never would have picked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to lead the Justice Department if he had known he'd recuse himself from the ongoing Russia investigation.