Trump Doubles Down on Russia. The Spies Shake Their Heads.
WASHINGTON — When President Trump directed aides to ask President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to the White House this fall, the invitation was his latest attempt to use personal diplomacy in the pursuit of better relations with the Kremlin.
But it was also at odds with moves by the rest of the Trump administration that served as blunt reminders that the national security establishment appears to be following a radically different Russia policy than the commander in chief.
The Pentagon declared on Friday that it would provide $200 million in assistance to Ukraine to help fight the Russian-controlled separatists in the country’s east. “Russia should suffer consequences for its aggressive, destabilizing behavior and its illegal occupation of Ukraine,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in a statement.
And a day earlier, the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, pledged to offer Mr. Trump a candid assessment of the vast risks of inviting Mr. Putin to the White House.
In administration strategy documents, NATO communiqués and other official orders, Russia is called a growing threat, a potential or actual adversary intent on undermining democratic institutions of the United States and its allies. The Trump administration has imposed sanctions on Russia’s elite, and the special counsel has indicted about two dozen Russians on charges of interfering with the 2016 presidential election.
But in recent days, as Mr. Trump sustained his attacks on European allies, declared his meeting in Finland with Mr. Putin a success and signaled that he wanted a more constructive relationship with Moscow, following a policy of isolating Russia has grown more difficult, officials said.
“The combination of the president’s repeated attacks on NATO, his repeated failure to hold Putin accountable for the 2016 assault on our elections and his refusal to call Putin out regarding the current efforts to subvert the midterms all raise legitimate questions about what is going on with the president,” said David Laufman, the former chief of the Justice Department’s counterintelligence and export control section.
Adding to the difficulty of deciphering American policy toward Moscow is the fact that Mr. Trump seems to have told relatively few people about what he and Mr. Putin discussed at their one-on-one meeting in Helsinki on Monday.
Mr. Coats said he did not know what went on in the summit meeting, and other national security officials said they were in the dark as well. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Friday that he had spoken to the president about the meeting, but Mr. Trump has not shared his thoughts widely with the government.
In other administrations, such a meeting would have produced a plethora of diplomatic cables and other documents outlining it as well as briefings for national security officials or lawmakers, according to former officials.
“At this point, all I have heard is crickets,” said Eric S. Edelman, a former under secretary of defense for policy in the George W. Bush administration.
If a president does not brief his staff, intelligence agencies have few options to learn about the meeting. Their most obvious solution — eavesdropping — is off limits when it comes to the commander in chief, even during a meeting with the leader of an adversary, according to former intelligence officers.
Still, the intelligence agencies would probably try to intercept Russian discussions of what was said in the meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin, former officials said.
The disconnect between the White House and intelligence agencies could create a thorny situation if American spies collect information that might be embarrassing to Mr. Trump — such as Russian officials saying that Mr. Putin had extracted concessions from Mr. Trump during the Helsinki meeting.