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President Donald Trump has taken heat for congratulating Vladimir Putin following his successful bid in Russia’s presidential election, which critics have derided as a sham contest.
International observers said the election was marred by the suppression of dissenting voices, and presented Russian voters with virtually no alternative options to Putin. The nonpartisan pro-democracy group Freedom House said the balloting amounted to a mock election of a dictator.
As questions about the legitimacy of Putin’s victory swirled, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Trump’s outreach was beneath the office of the presidency.
"An American president does not lead the Free World by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections," McCain said in a March 20 statement. "And by doing so with Vladimir Putin, President Trump insulted every Russian citizen who was denied the right to vote in a free and fair election to determine their country's future, including the countless Russian patriots who have risked so much to protest and resist Putin's regime."
Trump’s outreach comes as Special Counsel Robert Mueller and multiple congressional committees investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, as well as ties between Trump’s campaign and Moscow.
Trump took to Twitter to defend himself by pointing out that his predecessor, President Barack Obama, had also congratulated Putin after his successful presidential run.
"I called President Putin of Russia to congratulate him on his election victory (in past, Obama called him also)," Trump tweeted March 21.
I called President Putin of Russia to congratulate him on his election victory (in past, Obama called him also). The Fake News Media is crazed because they wanted me to excoriate him. They are wrong! Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing.......— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 21, 2018
Trump’s defenders also drew attention to Obama's outreach to Putin following his win.
"Media so dishonest," tweeted conservative pundit Laura Ingraham, who linked to a March 2012 Weekly Standard article, which noted that Obama phoned Putin from Air Force One to extend his congratulations.
An archive of the the Obama White House website shows Obama did in fact talk with Putin on March 9, 2012, following his election win.
"President Obama called Russian President-elect and Prime Minister Putin to congratulate him on his recent victory in the Russian Presidential election," according to the official summary, or "readout" of the call.
International observers had also raised doubts about the legitimacy of Putin’s 2012 win. Obama’s own State Department, while congratulatory, noted concerns about "the conditions under which the campaign was conducted, the partisan use of government resources and procedural irregularities on election day."
In 2008, President George W. Bush called Dmitry Medvedev following his successful presidential bid. But one account of their phone call said Bush "appeared to stop short of offering the customary White House congratulations to the president-elect."
Some commentators pushed back on the notion that Trump’s outreach is akin to that of his predecessors, noting Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
"2012: Obama congratulates Putin on his ‘win’. R’s attack. D’s silent," tweeted Ana Navarro. "2016-2018: Putin complicit in Assad’s genocide. Putin meddles in US elections. Putin poisons opponents in Eng. 2018: Trump congratulates Putin on his ‘win’. D’s attack. Most R’s -not McCain- crickets."
2012: Obama congratulates Putin on his “win”. R’s attack. D’s silent.— Ana Navarro (@ananavarro) March 21, 2018
2016-2018: Putin complicit in Assad’s genocide. Putin meddles in US elections. Putin poisons opponents in Eng.
2018: Trump congratulates Putin on his “win”. D’s attack. Most R’s -not McCain- crickets.🤷🏻♀️
This story has been updated following a tweet from President Donald Trump.
Reuters, "OSCE says Russian presidential election lacked real choice," March 19, 2018
Freedom House statement, "Russia: Sham Elections for a Dictator," March 16, 2018
Statement by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Mar 20 2018
Tweet by Laura Ingraham, March 21, 2018
Readout of President Barack Obama’s call with President-Elect Vladimir Putin, March 09, 2012
New York Times, "After Election, Putin Faces Challenges to Legitimacy," March 5, 2012
Reuters, "Bush phones Medvedev after Russian election win," March 4, 2008
Tweet by Ana Navarro, March 21, 2018