In a surprising turn this week, President Donald Trump offered up harsh words for Russian President Vladimir Putin over his country’s willingness to assist North Korea in obtaining supplies — a violation of international sanctions.
“Russia is not helping us at all with North Korea,” Trump said during an interview with Reuters on Wednesday, referring to China’s efforts to restrict the flow of oil and coal to Kim Jong-un’s regime. “What China is helping us with, Russia is denting. In other words, Russia is making up for some of what China is doing.”
He added, “[Putin] can do a lot. But unfortunately we don’t have much of a relationship with Russia, and in some cases it’s probable that what China takes back, Russia gives. So the net result is not as good as it could be.”
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) January 17, 2018
It was a scathing critique, by Trump’s standards. In the past, the president has spoken warmly of Putin, at times even praising his autocratic leadership style. Prior to his election in November 2016, Trump often bragged that he would “get along with” Putin and would be able to make deals with Russia that other presidents, like Obama, could not.
“Putin hates us,” he said during a campaign rally in August 2015. “He hates Obama. He doesn’t hate us. I think he’d like me. I’d get along great with him I think. If you want to know the truth.”
A month later, in an interview with then-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, Trump touted Putin’s effectiveness and awarded him “an ‘A'” for his leadership.
“Putin is now taking over what we started and he’s going into Syria, and he frankly wants to fight ISIS, and I think that’s a wonderful thing,” he said. “I will tell you in terms of leadership he is getting an ‘A’.”
Trump has also excused accusations against Putin that claim the Russian leader has approved the executions of several political adversaries in the past.
“Have they found him guilty? I don’t think they’ve found him guilty,” he told Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo in January 2016, shortly after his inauguration. “… I don’t know that he did it. You know, people are saying they think it was him, it might have been him, it could have been him. But Maria, in all fairness to Putin — I don’t know.”
More recently, despite consensus among the intelligence community that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election, Trump has denied Putin and his government played a part.
During a press conference in Poland last July, Trump claimed to reporters that “nobody really knows” who meddled in the election.
“It could have been other people in other countries,” he added.
One day later, during a two-hour meeting with the Russian president — in which no U.S. officials were present, except for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — Trump, referring to claims of Russian interference, reportedly asked Putin, “I’m going to get this out of the way: Did you do this?”
Putin, according to the New York Times, reportedly denied that he had.
“U.S. President Trump said that he heard firm assertions from Russian President Putin that it is not true and that Russian authorities have not meddled in the elections,” Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov, who was present at the meeting, told reporters later. “[Trump] said that he accepts these assertions — that’s it.”
The mounting North Korean nuclear threat presents the latest challenge for Trump, who has been scrutinized over his previous glowing comments about the Russian leader, despite Putin’s apparent unwillingness to follow China’s lead.
As CNN notes, it was only recently that the United States issued warnings to both countries regarding North Korean sanctions. “We cannot abide lapses or sanctions evasions. We will continue to call attention to and designate entities and individuals complicit in such evasive actions,” Tillerson said during a conference in Vancouver on Tuesday.
The call appeared to be in direct response to allegations of Russian oil shipments to North Korea late last year. Russia has also been criticized for providing internet to the country, which experts say may embolden Kim’s regime to carry out cyberattacks.