Whenever an autocrat or a dictator "wins" an election, it's always a diplomatic challenge for more democratic countries to figure out how to respond. In order for nations to have open channels of communication, there has to be some basic acknowledgment of the legitimacy of the nations' leaders. It's not a simple issue.
Recall that in 2012 there was a tremendous amount of hand-wringing over whether President Barack Obama should congratulate Vladimir Putin on his election "victory," especially after a campaign in which Putin had been especially belligerent toward the U.S. The New York Times reported that "the Obama administration fiercely debated how to respond to the Russian election, with some officials favoring a strong condemnation of the results." In the end, "the White House ultimately settled on a tempered statement, not directly congratulating Mr. Putin but saying 'the United States looks forward to working with the president-elect.'" The statement didn't mention Putin by name and the president waited five days before making the call.
Considering what has happened since Putin's last campaign, his election to a fourth term has had everyone wondering what President Trump would do. After all, since 2012 there has been the annexation of Crimea and that little matter of election interference in Europe and the U.S., so the stakes appear quite a bit higher now. There is also that recent unpleasantness in the U.K. where people were poisoned with Russian nerve gas and the likely perpetrators aren't even really trying to hide it.
There can be little doubt that this Russian election was, to use Trump's term, rigged. Putin "won" with 77 percent of the vote, which is simply not believable, especially given video evidence of ballot box stuffing. Most importantly, Putin banned his most popular opponent from the race, a tactic Trump almost certainly wishes he could impose. Remember, Trump told the whole country in the final debate of the 2016 campaign:
She shouldn't be allowed to run. It's crooked -- she's -- she's guilty of a very, very serious crime. She should not be allowed to run. And just in that respect, I say it's rigged, Chris, she should never have been allowed to run for the presidency based on what she did with emails and so many other things.
Since Trump simply cannot utter a negative word about Putin, most observers were anxious to hear what kind of verbal gymnastics the Trump administration would come up with to finesse this issue. It seemed unlikely that Trump would straight-up offer congratulations, since that would inevitably raise suspicions of his motives at a time when Robert Mueller's investigation is exploding in different directions.
So of course he did. Trump congratulated Putin and didn't even broach any of those issues. Not that the White House informed Americans of this. Just as the Kremlin had released those laughing pictures of Trump with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the day after Trump had fired FBI Director James Comey, it was the Kremlin that released a read-out of the Putin call, with the White House only belatedly acknowledging that it had happened.
In a photo-op with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia later on Tuesday, Trump was asked about it:
You have to love the idea that he wants to talk about the "arms race" getting out of control and then says, "but we will never allow anybody to have anything even close to what we have." Of course this is the same man who wanted to go back to the huge number of nuclear weapons we had during the Cold War (prompting former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to call him a "fucking moron"), so he's not exactly rational or informed on this subject.
At the Tuesday afternoon press briefing, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked if Trump might have mentioned something about the Russian election being well, rigged. She replied, "We don't get to dictate how other countries operate. What we do know is that Putin has been elected in their country and that's not something that we can dictate to them, how they operate. We can only focus on the freeness and fairness of our elections." She didn't even crack a smile.
This isn't the first time she has proclaimed that the United States has no right to comment on the inner workings of other countries when asked about Russia. That's curious, since the administration has not withheld judgment when it comes to Iran.
Neither has it held back in criticizing Cambodia or Venezuela, which evoked this scalding statement in the wake of the latter nation's recent elections:
This outrageous seizure of absolute power through a sham election represents a serious blow to democracy in our hemisphere.
The White House wouldn't even take the call from Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, and at the time Sanders issued this statement by way of explanation:
Since the start of this Administration, President Trump has asked that Maduro respect Venezuela’s constitution, hold free and fair elections, release political prisoners, cease all human rights violations, and stop oppressing Venezuela’s great people.The Maduro regime has refused to heed this call, which has been echoed around the region and the world. Instead Maduro has chosen the path of dictatorship.
It was unclear whether Maduro had tried to reach Trump by phone before or after Trump, standing between his UN ambassador and his secretary of state, said on camera that he was considering military intervention in Venezuela.
So one can be forgiven for thinking the Trump administration's new policy of saying nothing about undemocratic results in other countries seems to be strangely limited to countries run by autocrats Trump admires, particularly his friend Vladimir Putin.
As it turns out, Trump's national security team had actually gamed out a more nuanced approach to dealing with the Russian election, but Trump just ignored it. The Washington Post reported Tuesday evening that Trump had been given briefing note cards that said "DO NOT CONGRATULATE" and reminded him that he was to condemn the nerve-agent poisoning in London. Apparently he either didn't read them or simply ignored the advice because he didn't feel comfortable burdening his good friend with any disagreeable discussions about assassination attempts on the streets of America's closest ally.
As always, the question when it comes to Trump's stubborn unwillingness to speak to or about Putin in anything but obsequious, sycophantic terms is: Why? This bizarre and uncharacteristic behavior remains the most compelling and convincing piece of evidence that Putin must be holding something over his head. Not even the narcissistic Trump would take on this much blatant risk or be willing to look this bad simply because a man once flattered him.