Trump faces backlash after congratulating Putin on election win

President TrumpDonald John TrumpNFL freezes policy barring players from protesting during anthem McConnell spokesman on Putin visit: 'There is no invitation from Congress' Petition urges University of Virginia not to hire Marc Short MORE is coming under intense criticism for declining to press Russian President Vladimir Putin about the fairness of Russia’s presidential election and the poisoning of a former Russian double agent living in England, an incident the United Kingdom blamed on Moscow.

Trump phoned Putin on Tuesday to congratulate him for winning a fourth term and to discuss a possible summit meeting. But Washington seized on the topics that were not discussed, which include Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

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Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainControversial Trump judicial nominee withdraws Trump vows to hold second meeting with Putin Ex-Montenegro leader fires back at Trump: ‘Strangest president' in history MORE (R-Ariz.) said the president “insulted” the people of Russia by congratulating Putin for winning an election whose result was never in question.

“An American president does not lead the Free World by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections,” said McCain, a frequent critic of Trump who has pressed him to take a more aggressive approach toward the Kremlin. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell spokesman on Putin visit: 'There is no invitation from Congress' Overnight Defense: Trump inviting Putin to DC | Senate to vote Monday on VA pick | Graham open to US-Russia military coordination in Syria Senate to vote Monday on Trump's VA nominee MORE (R-Ky.) said Trump can “call whomever he chooses,” but added that phoning Putin “wouldn’t have been high on my list.” 

The Senate leader noted “the lack of credibility in tallying the results” in last weekend’s election, in which Putin won 77 percent of the vote.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended the president’s approach, noting that several friendly foreign leaders made similar calls, as did former President Obama when Putin last won reelection, in 2012. 

“We’re focused on our elections. We don’t get to dictate how other countries operate,” Sanders said when asked by a reporter if Russia’s election was “free and fair.”

Yet it is hardly uncommon for American presidents to call on other countries to enact democratic reforms and hold fair elections.

Vice President Pence on Wednesday is scheduled to speak to the Organization for American States and is expected to press the Latin American group’s members to raise pressure on Venezuela’s government to hold free and fair elections.

Last summer, the White House slapped sanctions on what it called the "illegitimate" Venezuelan government after President Nicolás Maduro tried to bypass the legislature to rewrite the nation's constitution.

“The United States once again calls for free and fair elections and stands with the people of Venezuela in their quest to restore their country to a full and prosperous democracy,” Trump said in a statement last July. 

The Trump administration announced last month it would cut aid to Cambodia, citing “deep concern” about restrictions on democracy there. 

A day earlier, the White House said there were no plans for Trump to call Putin following the election. Asked if the contest was free and fair, spokesman Hogan Gidley said, "We’re not surprised by the outcome."

And while the leaders of Germany, Japan and Israel called Putin to congratulate him, British Prime Minister Theresa May, who has harshly criticized Putin for the nerve-gas attack on the former Russian spy, has not called him. French President Emmanuel Macron offered best wishes “to Russia and the Russian people,” but not Putin, in an official statement. 

The phone call renewed questions about Trump’s approach toward Russia, which is frequently at odds with U.S. allies, Congress and even some members of his own administration. 

The U.S., Germany and France all joined Britain last week in saying Russia was responsible for a nerve-agent attack in southern England on former spy Sergei Skirpal and his daughter, which left both critically ill. Moscow has denied the accusation.

Days later, Putin was elected in a contest that international organizations said was tainted by ballot-box stuffing. There were also multiple reports of poll-watchers being blocked from carrying out their duties.

Leading Putin opposition figure Alexei Navalny was barred from running due to a criminal conviction that the Kremlin's critics said was politically motivated. 

“Restrictions on the fundamental freedoms of assembly, association and expression, as well as on candidate registration, have limited the space for political engagement and resulted in a lack of genuine competition,” the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe wrote in a report on the election.

Trump mentioned none of those issues when speaking to reporters in the Oval Office about his “very good” phone call with Putin. 

“I suspect that we’ll probably be meeting in the not too distant future to discuss the arms race, which is getting out of control,” the president said. “But we will never allow anybody to have anything even close to what we have.”

Trump also said he wanted to discuss the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, as well as North Korea’s nuclear program. The Kremlin said in a statement the leaders gave “special attention” to arranging the meeting during their phone call.

Sanders later said that there are “no specific plans made at this time” for a meeting between Trump and Putin. 

The next time the two leaders, who have already met twice, might be in the same place is November at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

The comments come amid heightened tensions over Russia’s election meddling, which U.S. officials fear may happen again in the midterm elections this fall.

The Trump administration just last week imposed new sanctions against Moscow for its election interference in 2016 and other cyberattacks, steps that officials described as an effort to deter future meddling. 

Trump, however, is facing calls from Congress to impose further penalties on oligarchs and other influential Russian figures.

Special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE has also appeared to accelerate his probe into whether the Trump campaign cooperated with the Kremlin in 2016, and whether the president obstructed the investigation, which has fueled Trump's anger. 

Trump has repeatedly called the probe a “witch hunt” that has blocked his desire to form a closer relationship with Moscow. He has also been reluctant to publicly criticize Putin or blame him for election meddling. 

“I believe that he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election,” Trump said of Putin last fall during a summit meeting in Vietnam. “As to whether I believe it or not, I'm with our agencies, especially as currently constituted with their leadership.”

The president also suggested that bringing up the topic puts a strain on the U.S.-Russia relationship, which he wants to avoid. 

“I want to be able — because I think it's very important — to get along with Russia,” he said at the time. “So I'm not looking to stand and start arguing with somebody when there's reporters all around and cameras recording and seeing our conversation.”