Trump, Putin Agree In Phone Call To Improve ‘Unsatisfactory’ US-Russia Relations, Kremlin Says

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President-elect Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in a telephone conversation Monday that relations between their countries were “unsatisfactory” and vowed to work together to improve them, the Kremlin said in a statement.

The statement said the two leaders discussed combining efforts in the fight against terrorism, talked about “a settlement for the crisis in Syria,” and agreed their aides would begin working toward a face-to-face meeting between them.

Trump’s office has not commented on the call, and the Russian statement did not indicate who initiated it. Since his victory last week, Trump has received congratulatory calls from a number of foreign leaders. On the day after the U.S. election, Putin sent Trump a telegram covering much of the same themes, including his desire to improve U.S.-Russia relations and establish a dialogue based on “mutual respect and genuine consideration for each other’s positions.”

Yet the statement, if true, could subject Trump to criticism that he is continuing his controversial embrace of the Russian leader. The President-elect drew rebukes from both political parties during the campaign for repeatedly expressing his admiration for Putin, suggesting at one point that Putin is more worthy of his praise than President Obama.

The call came as Trump faced a growing backlash against his decision to name campaign chairman and former Breitbart News head Stephen K. Bannon as chief strategist at the White House, a choice critics say will empower white nationalists.

During the campaign, Trump had praised Putin as a strong leader and said the United States and Russia should join together to fight terrorists, particularly the Islamic State in Syria. He indicated that closer relations with Russia would serve U.S. interests by keeping the Kremlin from establishing tighter ties with China.

Trump appeared to absolve Russia from responsibility for its intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, and he questioned the relevance of NATO, which has charged Moscow with engaging in provocative air and sea actions on the alliance’s eastern flank.

Giving Putin a pass on those issues would directly counter the Obama administration’s Russia policy, which has sought an international war crimes investigation of Russia’s actions in Syria.

Equally controversial was Trump’s selection on Sunday of Bannon. A chorus of advocacy groups, commentators and congressional Democrats have denounced Bannon as a proponent of racist, anti-Semitic and misogynistic views as Trump began his first full week as president-elect. Trump named Bannon his chief strategist and senior counselor while also appointing Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus to be his chief of staff.

“President-elect Trump’s choice of Steve Bannon as his top aide signals that white supremacists will be represented at the highest levels in Trump’s White House,” Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement Sunday night. “It is easy to see why the KKK views Trump as their champion when Trump appoints one of the foremost peddlers of White Supremacist themes and rhetoric as his top aide. Bannon was ‘the main driver behind Breitbart becoming a white ethno-nationalist propaganda mill,’ according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.”

The statement echoed sentiments from leaders of the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP, other Capitol Hill Democrats and some Republican Trump critics such as Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, who tweeted, “Is there precedent for such a disreputable & unstable extremist in [White House] senior ranks before Bannon?”

A spokesman for Trump accused critics and the media of trying to “divide people” following the election when they raise questions about Bannon’s views and history.

Jason Miller, communications director for the Trump presidential transition, said Monday morning that Bannon has done a “fantastic job” since joining Trump’s inner circle.

“If you’ve seen the president-elect since the election, he’s taken a very measured tone,” Miller said in an interview with CNN’s “New Day.”

Kellyanne Conway, who worked closely with Bannon as Trump’s campaign manager, also defended him.

“He’s been the general of this campaign,” Conway told reporters as she arrived Monday at Trump Tower in Manhattan to meet with the president-elect. Citing Bannon’s résumé as a former naval officer and Goldman Sachs executive, she called him a “brilliant tactician.”

Asked whether Bannon needed to explain his connections to the alt-right movement, Conway said: “I’m personally offended that you think I would manage a campaign where that would be one of the going philosophies. It was not – 56 million-plus Americans or so saw something else. . . . You should really focus on the will of the people, which was to elect Donald Trump the president.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., sought to calm the fears many Americans still hold about Trump’s election, which has been greeted by widespread protests.

“There is a lot of hysteria and hyperbole,” Ryan said during an interview Monday with his hometown radio station, 1380 Big AM. “I would tell people to just relax – things are going to be fine.

Trump’s naming of Bannon and Priebus set up what could be a battle within the White House between the populist, outsider forces that propelled his winning campaign and the party establishment that dominates Washington.

In appointing Priebus, 44, Trump has brought into his White House a Washington insider who is viewed as broadly acceptable by vast swaths of the party, and he signaled a willingness to work within the establishment he assailed on the campaign trail. But Trump sent an opposing signal by tapping Bannon, 62, who has openly attacked congressional leadership, taking particular aim at Ryan – who recommended Priebus for his new job.

“I am thrilled to have my very successful team continue with me in leading our country,” Trump said in a statement. “Steve and Reince are highly qualified leaders who worked well together on our campaign and led us to a historic victory. Now I will have them both with me in the White House as we work to make America great again.”

Bannon’s senior White House role has been welcomed by prominent figures on the alt-right.

Richard Spencer, president of the white-nationalist National Policy Institute, wrote on Twitter that “strategist” is the “best possible position” for Bannon in Trump’s White House. “Bannon will answer directly to Trump and focus on the big picture, and not get lost in the weeds,” he wrote Sunday night.

“He’ll be freed up to chart Trump’s macro trajectory,” Spencer wrote, adding, “The question is: Which way is the arrow pointing? It’s pointing towards the #AltRight!”

Groups representing Jews, African Americans and Muslims have vocally opposed Bannon’s appointment.

Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, said via Twitter on Sunday night that the ADL opposes Bannon’s appointment to a senior White House role because “he & his alt-right are so hostile to core American values.”

Endorsing Greenblatt’s message, NAACP President Cornell William Brooks tweeted overnight: “Racism has been routinized; anti-Semitism normalized; xenophobia deexceptionalized; & misogyny mainstreamed.”

The Bannon announcement came as Trump highlighted some of his first priorities in an interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” vowing after he is inaugurated to “immediately” deport up to 3 million immigrants in the country illegally and to simultaneously repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. He also repeated his remark that he knows more about the Islamic State than U.S. generals do, saying, “I probably do, because look at the job they’ve done.”

Trump’s top two advisers could help him achieve different objectives. Priebus could help Trump notch early legislative victories in a Republican-led Congress and ingratiate himself with the insiders he claims to loathe but who dominate his transition team. A longtime lawyer and Wisconsin political operative, Priebus will work to smooth over residual friction from a campaign during which a number of Republicans refused to endorse Trump, reversed their endorsements or stepped away from him after a 2005 tape surfaced in which Trump is heard saying that he could force himself on women because he was a “star.”

Bannon will be the other voice on Trump’s shoulder: He helped shape Trump’s message on the campaign trail and relishes combativeness. The former Navy officer and investment banker has said the campaign was the American version of worldwide populist movements such as the British vote to sever ties with the European Union.

Bannon’s appointment drew sharp criticism from political operatives on both sides of the aisle who see Bannon as being too close to the alt-right and white nationalism. Breitbart has published stories with headlines stating that women faced with harassment online should “log off” and that taking birth control makes women “unattractive and crazy.” The site called Kristol a “renegade Jew” in 2015.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a hate-watch group, blasted the choice of Bannon and cited Breitbart headlines that included a call to hoist the Confederate flag weeks after shootings at a black Charleston, South Carolina, church and another that said that political correctness “protects Muslim rape culture.”

Bannon was charged with misdemeanor domestic violence against his former wife more than 20 years ago; the charges included trying to prevent a victim or witness of crime from reporting, inflicting injury and battery. Bannon was never convicted, and the case was dismissed. His former wife also accused him of making anti-Semitic remarks, according to a court statement obtained by the New York Daily News.

Priebus said negative claims against Bannon do not reflect the man he knows. “He was a force for good on the campaign at every level that I saw all the time,” Priebus told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Monday.

“I haven’t seen any of these things that people are crying out about,” he told “Fox and Friends.”

Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich blasted the idea Sunday that Trump’s campaign catered to the alt-right, calling it “garbage.”

In a statement, Bannon said he and Priebus had a “very successful partnership” on the campaign trail. “We will have that same partnership in working to help President-elect Trump achieve his agenda,” Bannon said.

Priebus gave a preview of some of the administration’s policy priorities: “I am very grateful to the president-elect for this opportunity to serve him and this nation as we work to create an economy that works for everyone, secure our borders, repeal and replace Obamacare and destroy radical Islamic terrorism. He will be a great president for all Americans.”

The personnel announcement comes as the contours of the Trump administration are starting to take shape and as he and his team pivot from campaign rhetoric to the nuts and bolts of governing. Trump and his advisers continue to paint a mixed picture of what the administration will look like, and they have been giving answers often at odds with Trump’s campaign rhetoric, which included pledges to fully repeal the ACA and get Mexico to pay for a wall along the southern border, and crowd chants of “Lock her up!” about his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

On undocumented immigrants, Trump said on “60 Minutes” that his administration will “get the people that are criminal and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers, we have a lot of these people, probably 2 million, it could be even 3 million. We are getting them out of our country, or we are going to incarcerate. But we’re getting them out of our country; they’re here illegally.”

The remarks are another sign of retreat from Trump’s vows throughout much of the presidential campaign to remove all of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country. By focusing on criminals only, Trump would be mirroring current Obama administration priorities, and experts say his numbers are highly inflated.

Trump also built his campaign around a pledge to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, but he said Sunday he would accept the plan of some congressional Republicans to build a fence in specific places – something he told MSNBC in February would be acceptable for part of the border because of natural barriers.

Trump again said Sunday that he will probably keep in place parts of the Obama health-care law, including provisions that allow children to stay on their parents’ health plans until the person turns 26 and prevent insurers from refusing coverage for preexisting conditions. He said his administration would work to repeal and replace the law simultaneously; he said in a different interview Friday that the law might simply be amended.

“And it’ll be great health care for much less money. So it’ll be better health care, much better, for less money. Not a bad combination,” he told CBS’s Lesley Stahl on Sunday.

Trump has said that he would appoint Supreme Court justices to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, and in Vice President-elect Mike Pence he will be bringing one of the nation’s most antiabortion politicians into the White House.

When asked by Stahl whether he plans to appoint a justice who will overturn Roe v. Wade, Trump said whomever he names will be “very pro-life” and that “if it ever were overturned, it would go back to the states.”

Trump also said he is “fine” with same-sex marriage being legal.

The president-elect, who did not release his tax returns during the campaign, told “60 Minutes” he will make them public “at the appropriate time.”

Trump said he believes that some of the protesters involved in demonstrations that have taken place in major cities since Trump’s victory are “professional protesters” and that people shouldn’t be scared of his administration.

“Don’t be afraid,” Trump said. “We are going to bring our country back. But certainly, don’t be afraid. You know, we just had an election and sort of like you have to be given a little time.”

When asked of reports of racial slurs, harassment and personal threats against African Americans, gay people, Latinos and Muslims and others by some of his supporters, Trump said he didn’t hear it but that he “hates” to hear that.

“I am so saddened to hear that. And I say, ‘Stop it.’ If it – if it helps. I will say this, and I will say right to the cameras: ‘Stop it,’ ” he said.

Trump’s personnel announcements are emblematic of the conflicting signals the new administration has sent since Tuesday’s upset victory, in which Trump won the electoral college by sweeping a number of Rust Belt states even as he lost the popular vote. Trump vowed to “drain the swamp” of Washington, but numerous lobbyists and big-pocketed donors are appearing in the power structure he is erecting.

Trump defended himself on “60 Minutes,” saying that these people “know the system right now” but that it is going to be phased out.

The president-elect appears to have resumed full use of his Twitter account, which was restricted leading up to Election Day. He took aim at The New York Times, suggesting that a letter sent to subscribers amounted to the paper “apologizing for their BAD coverage of me.” The letter did not apologize for bad coverage.

Trump suggested on “60 Minutes” that he might not tweet as much when he occupies the Oval Office – or just not in the way the world has gotten used to.

“I’m going to do very restrained, if I use it at all, I’m going to do very restrained. I find it tremendous. It’s a modern form of communication,” he said.

(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Elise Viebeck, Jerry Markon, Karen DeYoung

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