White House: Russia Call for Ukraine Referendum Illegitimate

The White House said Friday it “is not considering supporting” a Vladimir-Putin-backed call for a referendum in eastern Ukraine in the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s meeting with the Russian president.

Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, revealed Friday that the two leaders had discussed the possibility of a referendum in separatist-leaning eastern Ukraine during their Helsinki summit.

National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said agreements between Russia and the Ukrainian government for resolving the conflict in the Donbas region “do not include any option for referendum.” He added any effort to organize a “so-called referendum” would have “no legitimacy.”

The White House announcement comes as it laid out the agenda for an autumn summit between Trump and Putin in Washington that would focus on national security. Moscow signaled openness to a second formal meeting between the two leaders, as criticism of Trump over his first session with his Russian counterpart continued to swirl.

A White House official said the next Trump-Putin meeting would address national security concerns discussed in Helsinki, including Russian meddling. The official did not specify if that meant Russia’s interference in U.S. elections. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning, said the talks would also cover nuclear proliferation, North Korea, Iran and Syria.

Trump asked National Security Adviser John Bolton to invite Putin to Washington in the fall to follow up on issues they discussed this week in Helsinki, Finland, the official said.

A White House meeting would be a dramatic extension of legitimacy to the Russian leader, who has long been isolated by the West for activities in Ukraine, Syria and beyond and is believed to have interfered in the 2016 presidential election that sent Trump to the presidency. No Russian leader has visited the White House in nearly a decade.

The announcement of a second summit comes as U.S. officials have been mum on what, if anything, the two leaders agreed to in Helsinki during their more than two-hour one-on-one meeting, in which only translators were present. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats revealed Thursday he has yet to be briefed on the private session.

The Russian government has proven to be more forthcoming.

“This issue [of a referendum] was discussed,” Antonov said, adding that Putin made “concrete proposals” to Trump on solutions for the four-year, Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine, which has killed more than 10,000 people. He did not elaborate on what Putin’s solutions would be.

The move may be seen as an effort to sidestep European peace efforts for Ukraine and increase the pressure on the Ukrainian government in its protracted conflict with pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass region.

Trump tweeted Thursday that he looked forward a “second meeting” with Putin and defended his performance at Monday’s 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.

In Moscow, Antonov said it is important to “deal with the results” of their first summit before jumping too fast into a new one. But he said, “Russia was always open to such proposals. We are ready for discussions on this subject.”

News of Trump’s invitation to Putin appeared to catch even the president’s top intelligence official by surprise.

“Say that again,” Coats responded, when informed of the invitation during an appearance at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.

“OK,” he continued, pausing for a deep breath. “That’s going to be special.”

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

Then on Thursday, the White House said Trump “disagrees” with Putin’s offer to allow U.S. questioning of 12 Russians who have been indicted for election interference in exchange for Russian interviews with the former U.S. ambassador to Russia and other Americans the Kremlin accuses of unspecified crimes. Trump initially had described the idea as an “incredible offer.”

The White House backtrack came just before the Senate voted overwhelmingly against the proposal. It was Congress’ first formal rebuke of Trump’s actions from the summit and its aftermath.

Asked about the Putin invitation, Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan said “I wouldn’t do it, that’s for damn sure.”

“If the Russians want a better relationship, trips to the White House aren’t going to help,” he added. “They should stop invading their neighbors.”

Mixed messages from Trump have increased worries in Congress that the White House is not taking seriously the threat that senior officials say Russia now poses to the upcoming 2018 midterm elections.

Democrats in the House sought Thursday to extend a state grant program for election security but were blocked by Republicans. There is $380 million approved in the current budget for the program, which is intended to help states strengthen election systems from hacking and other cyberattacks.

Democratic lawmakers erupted into chants of “USA! USA!” during the debate,

While Trump and Putin had met privately on three occasions in 2017, Trump opened the door to a potential White House meeting with him earlier this year. The Kremlin had said in April that the president had invited the Russian leader to the White House when they spoke by telephone in March. At the time, White House officials worked to convince a skeptical president that the Nordic capital would serve as a more effective backdrop — and warned of a firestorm should a West Wing meeting go through.

Still, Trump has expressed a preference for the White House setting for major meetings, including floating an invitation to Washington for North Korea’s Kim Jong Un after their meeting in Singapore last month.

Putin would be setting foot inside the building for the first time in more than a decade.

He last visited the White House in 2005, when he met President George W. Bush, who welcomed the Russian leader in the East Room as “my friend.”

President Barack Obama welcomed then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to the White House in 2010, and took him on a burger run at a joint just outside the capital.

Putin, in his first public comments about the summit, told Russian diplomats that U.S.-Russian relations are “in some ways worse than during the Cold War,” but that the meeting with Trump allowed a start on “the path to positive change.”

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