WASHINGTON — During a joint appearance with leaders of the three Baltic states on Tuesday, President Trump speculated on whether Russian President Vladimir Putin is an “enemy” or a leader with whom he can have a good rapport. Trump declared “nobody’s been tougher on Russia than I have,” but left the door open for improved ties between the two countries.
“I think I could have a very good relationship with Russia and with President Putin and, if I did, that would be a great thing,” Trump said. “There’s also a great possibility that that won’t happen. Who knows? OK?”
Trump’s remarks were in response to a question by an Estonian reporter who asked if he saw Putin as an “enemy” or “someone you could have dialogue with.” The question came in response to comments Trump made earlier in the day at a working lunch with the leaders of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia where he said, “Nobody’s been tougher on Russia than Donald Trump.”
The three Baltic countries are just to the west of Russia. They were part of the Soviet Union from the end of World War II until 1991.
“If we got along with Russia, that would be a good thing, not a bad thing,” Trump said at the lunch, adding, “And just about everybody agrees with that, except very stupid people.”
On Monday, Russian officials said Trump proposed a meeting with Putin at the White House when the two spoke by phone on March 20. The Kremlin suggested this would be a good step, but the White House would not comment beyond confirming that the pair discussed a potential meeting.
Trump has faced growing questions about his posture toward Russia amid the investigation into whether his presidential campaign was party to Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Although U.S. intelligence agencies have said the Kremlin sought to help Trump win, relations between the two countries have worsened in the past month, with Putin touting his nuclear missile capabilities and the U.S. expelling 60 Russian diplomats in response to allegations that the Kremlin was responsible for an attack on an ex-spy in Britain.
At the press conference, Trump began by expressing hope that he and Putin could have productive conversations, while citing some examples of his policies that have had a negative impact on Russia. He began by noting his efforts to increase U.S. energy exports and arguing that Hillary Clinton, his Democratic rival from 2016, would not have done the same.
“I think we’ll be able to have great dialogue. I hope, and if we can’t, you’ll be the first to know about it. Nobody’s been tougher on Russia than I have,” Trump said, adding, “Everyone agrees when they think about it. Strong energy. … My opponent was into other forms of energy, like windmills. We’re very strong on energy. We’re essentially now energy-independent. We’re an exporter of energy. That is not a positive for Russia.”
Trump also pointed to his push for further military spending.
“We just passed a $700 billion military budget. Next year, $716 billion, the largest ever passed,” said Trump. “We are going to have a military stronger than we’ve ever had before, by far. That’s not exactly a great thing for Russia, but that’s the way it is.”
Trump went on to cite his call for NATO allies to contribute more to defense and how many Russian diplomats the U.S. expelled compared with other European nations following the attack in Britain.
“NATO was delinquent. They were not paying their bills. … A lot of states … were not paying what they should be paying. Since I came in, many, many billions of dollars additional have been paid by countries that weren’t paying,” said Trump. “Frankly, they’re going to have to pay more. So there are many things I’ve done. And not only the 60 diplomats. Germany did four. France did four. We did 60. There’s nobody been tougher on Russia.”
The president expressed hope he could have a positive dialogue with Putin.
“With that being said, I think I could have a very good relationship with President Putin. I think it’s possible I won’t. And you will know about it. … It’s a real possibility that I could have a good relationship,” Trump said.
Trump concluded by reiterating his view that a strong relationship with Russia would be a good thing for the United States.
“Remember this, getting along with Russia is a good thing. Getting along with China is a good thing. Getting along with other countries … is a good thing, not a bad thing,” he said.
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