Kremlin: Trump, Putin discuss stabilizing ties

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WASHINGTON — U.S. President Donald Trump might be having his biggest day of diplomacy yet, speaking by phone Saturday with five world leaders — most significantly Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Germany’s Angela Merkel.

Saturday’s call was Trump’s first phone conversation with the Russian president since his inauguration last week, and one whose outcome will be closely studied.

A Kremlin summary of the phone call talked about stabilizing the relationship between the two nations and several other subjects.

Some of the other issues included restoring trade ties, international terrorism, the situations in Ukraine and the Korean Peninsula, and the coordination of military action against ISIS and other terror groups in Syria.

The Kremlin call summary didn’t specifically mention U.S. sanctions against Russia. It said restoration of mutually beneficial economic ties “could further stimulate progressive and stable development of bilateral relations.”

Trump and Putin have said before the call that they would like to see warmer ties between their two nations. However, relations between Trump and his team and Russia have been under scrutiny after allegations that Moscow meddled in the U.S. election last year.

Speaking Friday at his first White House news conference, Trump indicated a willingness to work with Moscow.

But he said it was “too early” to discuss removing sanctions that his predecessor, President Barack Obama, imposed on Russia.

“We’re looking to have a great relationship with all countries,” Trump said. “If we can have a great relationship with Russia and China and all countries I’m all for that.”

On Friday night, however, a senior administration official said the current plan was not to lift the Russian sanctions.

The Kremlin had sought to lower expectations, suggesting Putin was calling as a matter of protocol to congratulate the U.S. leader on his inauguration.

But there is excitement in Russia about a possible detente between Washington and Moscow under the Trump administration.

Obama imposed sanctions on Russia and earlier this month expelled 35 Russian diplomats from the United States over alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Flurry of calls

Before he spoke with Putin, Trump held a call with Merkel and spoke to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a key ally in Asia.

The 45-minute phone call between Trump and Abe included a discussion on the threat posed by North Korea, and both leaders agreed to speak face to face in Washington on Feb. 10.

Abe and Trump also discussed the significance of Defense Secretary James Mattis’ upcoming visit to Asia, according to the White House.

Later Saturday, Trump was to speak with French President Francois Hollande and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Trump’s calls with Abe and Turnbull come days after he signed an executive order withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive trade deal negotiated by the Obama administration that Congress had not yet ratified. Abe and Turnbull had supported TPP.

The call between Trump and Abe did not include a discussion on a replacement for the TPP, a high-ranking Japanese government official told reporters.

The flurry of telephone diplomacy comes a day after Trump received his first foreign leader at the White House, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, who announced Trump will make a state visit to the U.K.

In a speech to U.S. Republicans, May urged Trump to tread carefully as he deals with Russia, saying: “With President Putin, my advice is to engage but beware.”

Trump also spoke on the phone Friday with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto after a row over his plans for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border culminated in Peña Nieto canceling a planned trip to Washington.

Fences to mend?

Trump’s call with the German Chancellor was likely not the easiest of the day.

In an interview this month with the Times of London and the German publication Bild, the U.S. president called Merkel “by far the most important leader” in Europe — but was critical of the welcome she has extended to refugees.

“I think she made one very catastrophic mistake and that was taking all of these illegals, you know taking all of the people from wherever they come from. And nobody even knows where they come from,” Trump said in that interview.

He also appeared to undermine the European Union, currently grappling with the prospect of Britain’s exit, saying: “You look at the European Union and it’s Germany. Basically a vehicle for Germany. That’s why I thought the U.K. was so smart in getting out.”

Merkel — who is running for a fourth term in office later this year and faces criticism from political opponents over her refugee policy — declined to comment on Trump’s remarks.

But at the time of Trump’s election in November, she made it clear that Germany’s cooperation would depend on how he acts.

“Germany and the United States (are) joined by common values — democracy, freedom, respect for the law and human dignity — regardless of skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political beliefs,” she said. “Based on these values, I offer close cooperation to the future president.”