White House invites Putin to Washington for fall meeting

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Unbowed by criticism over his Helsinki summit, President Donald Trump extended an invitation to Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet in Washington in the fall, the White House said on Thursday.

Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Twitter that Trump had asked National Security Adviser John Bolton to invite Putin, adding, “Those discussions are already underway.”

The invitation was announced hours after the president tweeted that he looked forward to “our second meeting” as he defended his performance on Monday at the summit in which the two leaders conferred on a range of issues, including terrorism, Israeli security, nuclear proliferation and North Korea.

“There are many answers, some easy and some hard, to these problems ... but they can ALL be solved!” Trump tweeted.

The announcement of the invitation came as the White House sought to clean up days of confounding statements on Russian interference in the 2016 election that sent Trump to the presidency. Trump’s public doubting of Russia’s responsibility in a joint news conference with Putin on Monday provoked withering criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike and forced the president to make a rare public admission of error.

On Thursday, the White House said Trump “disagrees” with Putin’s offer to swap the questioning of 12 Russians accused of 2016 election interference for an interview with the former US ambassador.

The White House retreated from what Trump had called Putin’s “incredible offer” during the Helsinki summit, revising its position just before the Senate voted overwhelmingly against the plan. It was Congress’ first formal rebuke of Trump’s actions from the summit and its aftermath.

Sanders said Putin’s proposal was “made in sincerity,” but Trump “disagrees with it.” She said the US hopes Putin will have the indicted Russians “come to the United States to prove their innocence or guilt.”

Earlier on Thursday, Trump and Putin blamed forces within the United States for marring what they called the success of their first summit, with Trump saying he looked forward to their second meeting.

Trump, struggling to quiet an uproar over his failure to confront Putin over Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US election at Monday’s summit in Helsinki, fell back on one of his favorite targets - the news media - while US lawmakers considered fresh legislative action targeting Moscow.

The Republican president accused the media of distorting comments in which he gave credence to Putin’s denials of election interference despite the conclusions of the American intelligence community about Moscow’s conduct.

“The Summit with Russia was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media,” Trump, who has faced criticism from lawmakers in both parties after the summit, wrote on Twitter.

“I look forward to our 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,” Trump said.

In Moscow, Putin said “powerful” US forces were trying to sabotage the summit’s achievements, but said he and Trump had begun to improve US-Russia ties anyway.

OPINION: What is Putin blackmailing Trump with?

“It was successful overall and led to some useful agreements. Of course, let’s see how events will develop further,” Putin said in remarks to Russian diplomats from around the world, without disclosing the nature of the agreements to which he referred.

“We see that there are forces in the United States that are prepared to casually sacrifice Russian-US relations, to sacrifice them for their ambitions in an internal political battle in the United States,” Putin said.

Putin did not name names, but spoke of US politicians who put their “narrow party interests” above the best interests of the United States and were powerful enough to be able to foist their questionable “stories” on millions of Americans.

Republican and Democratic US lawmakers grappled with Trump’s conflicting statements about the summit as well as what they did not know: exactly what the two leaders discussed in their private meeting and what agreements, if any, were reached.

Republicans voted down a motion offered by Democrats in the House of Representatives intelligence committee to subpoena the American interpreter who witnessed Trump’s meeting with Putin.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said he asked two Senate panels to recommend additional action aimed at preventing future Russian election meddling and hold hearings on an existing Russia sanctions law.

American intelligence agencies last year announced their conclusion that Russia carried out a campaign of hacking and propaganda targeting the 2016 US election in an attempt to sow discord, disparage Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and aid Trump’s candidacy. Putin has denied any such meddling.

US Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen publicly reaffirmed their confidence in the findings after the Helsinki meeting.

In a bill gaining momentum in the Senate, sanctions targeting key Russian economic sectors would kick in swiftly if US authorities determine Moscow ever again interferes in an American election.

A number of US lawmakers rejected a Russian proposal, which the White House said it was considering, to question in the United States Americans sought by the Kremlin for “illegal activities,” including former US ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul and London-based financier Bill Browder.

“I don’t think there is one member of Congress, on either side of the aisle, that believes it is remotely smart to require our former ambassador, Mr. Browder or any other person to submit to interviews by Putin’s government,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said. “Because there is no rule of law, as I said, in Russia. There is just rule of Putin.”

Democratic US Representative Eric Swalwell said if Trump allowed Russians to question McFaul, “you can count on me and millions of others to swiftly make you an ex-president.”

Republican Senator Marco Rubio urged the White House on Twitter to “publicly & unequivocally rule it out.”

McFaul, ambassador to Russia under Democratic former President Barack Obama and a critic of both Trump and Putin, expressed deep concern that the White House failed to defend him.

US prosecutors have offered mounting evidence concerning Russian election meddling. Special Counsel Robert Mueller secured an indictment last Friday charging 12 Russian intelligence officers with hacking Democratic computer networks in 2016 as part of a wide-ranging conspiracy.

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