US president Donald Trump went into a January call with Russian president Vladimir Putin without being briefed first by intelligence or National Security Council experts, and during the conversation had to ask an aide to explain the New Start treaty, a milestone accord that constrains the two nations’ nuclear and missile arsenals, according to Reuters.
Trump went on to lambast the agreement as too favorable to Russia, and to boast about his domestic popularity, the news agency reported today (Feb. 9), quoting three unidentified sources who were read detailed notes of the call.
In their Jan. 28 conversation, Putin brought up the possibility of extending the treaty beyond its 2021 expiry. Trump responded by calling it a bad deal, among many negotiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama. The US Senate ratified the treaty in 2010 by a wide margin—the vote was 71 to 26. Thus the US agreed, along with Russia, to limit strategic nuclear warheads to an aggregate 1,550, the lowest number in decades.
In his Senate confirmation hearings, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson said he supports the treaty, although at the time he was not yet confirmed and it was not clear that this position was representative of administration policy.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer declined to discuss the contents of the call. “The president’s conversation with president Putin is a private call between the two of them, and I’m going to leave it at that,” Spicer said.
Julianne Smith, a Russia expert at the Center for New American Security in Washington, said the story—if accurate—demonstrates the danger of Trump holding foreign policy calls before being briefed by government experts. “Having to ask staff what something is on a phone call is not standard practice for presidential calls.”
Smith said the readout of the call works against Trump’s stated desire of improving relations with Russia. “This account shows him accusing the Russians of taking advantage of us and belittles the best arms control deal we have had in years,” she said.
Trump was also criticized by US senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It’s impossible to overstate the negligence of the president of the United States, not knowing basic facts about nuclear policy and arms control,” Shaheen said. “If this report is true, president Trump should immediately review the provisions of the New START Treaty with his advisors and cabinet.”