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Donald Trump diverges from Vladimir Putin before first meeting

President Trump on Thursday sharpened the lines of division between Washington and Moscow a day ahead of his highly anticipated first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, criticizing Russia’s military actions in Ukraine and Syria and praising NATO for its vital role in defending Europe against aggression.

Speaking to tens of thousands of enthusiastic Poles in Warsaw, Mr. Trump laid out clear expectations for changes in Russian behavior as he prepared to meet Mr. Putin face to face on Friday in Hamburg, Germany, the site of the annual Group of 20 summit, where riot police were deploying water cannons and tear gas in clashes with throngs of demonstrators.

“We urge Russia to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere and its support for hostile regimes including Syria and Iran, and to instead join the community of responsible nations in our fight against common enemies and the defense of civilization itself,” Mr. Trump said in Krasinski Square, as the audience in the former Soviet-bloc nation chanted his name and repeatedly interrupted his speech with applause.

But Mr. Putin promptly delivered another affront to the U.S. ahead of his meeting with Mr. Trump, as Russia blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution drafted by the U.S. that called for “significant measures” in response to North Korea’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

While Mr. Trump had tough words for Russia, he continued to voice doubts about claims that Moscow meddled in the U.S. presidential election to tilt the scales against Democrat Hillary Clinton.

At a news conference in Warsaw, Mr. Trump repeated his assertions that Russia likely hacked U.S. election systems, but he said he doesn’t trust the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies.

“I agree. I think it was Russia, and I think it was probably other people and/or other countries,” Mr. Trump said. “And I see nothing wrong with that statement. Nobody really knows for sure.”

Mr. Trump slammed former President Barack Obama for doing nothing about the hacking, saying the Democrat made a political decision to stand down. He said Mr. Obama ignored Russian meddling in the election because he believed, as did most other people, that Mrs. Clinton would win the election.

“The reason is he thought Hillary was going to win,” Mr. Trump said. “If he thought I was going to win, he would have done plenty about it. His people said he choked. I don’t think he choked.”

Mr. Obama reportedly learned of the Russian meddling as early as August but did not take action until after the Nov. 8 election, when he imposed sanctions on Moscow and ejected dozens of suspected Russian spies from the U.S.

With multiple investigations in Washington looking into the Russian hacking and suspected collusion between Trump campaign officials and Moscow, Democratic lawmakers jumped on Mr. Trump’s less-than-certain answer about Russian interference and accused him of showing weakness toward Russia before his high-stakes meeting with Mr. Putin.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said Mr. Trump’s comments “directly undermine U.S. interests.”

“This is not putting America first, but continuing to propagate his own personal fiction at the country’s expense,” said Mr. Schiff, who called on the president to challenge Mr. Putin on the election hacking.

“President Trump must have the courage to raise the issue of Russian interference in our elections directly with President Putin; otherwise, the Kremlin will conclude he is too weak to stand up to them. That would be a historic mistake, with damaging implications for our foreign policy for years to come,” Mr. Schiff said.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and four other top Democrats urged Mr. Trump in a letter to “discuss the elephant in the room” when he meets with Mr. Putin.

“President Putin directed an attack on the most central tenet of our democracy — our election,” the lawmakers wrote. “Not raising this matter with President Putin would be a severe dereliction of the duty of the office to which you were elected.”

Noting the midterm elections next year, they told Mr. Trump that “the upcoming elections cannot be a playground for President Putin.”

Whether or not Mr. Trump plans to confront Mr. Putin on the election, he is certain to challenge the Russian leader over Moscow’s military support of the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad.

The U.S. and its allies in Syria are fighting the Islamic State terrorist group — a fight that has drawn U.S. forces into close calls with Russian and Syrian troops.

Mr. Trump had high hopes at the start of his presidency that Russia would cooperate with the U.S. in destroying the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, denying the terrorist group a home base. He has praised Mr. Putin as a “strong leader” who routinely got the better of Mr. Obama in negotiations.

Although relations with Moscow have deteriorated over Syria, Mr. Trump still has hopes of working with Mr. Putin. His comments in Poland on Thursday seemed designed to keep Mr. Putin at arm’s length without shutting off any chance of deal-making.

In discussions Thursday night at the G-20 summit, Mr. Trump agreed with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the need for “re-energizing” the Minsk agreement, which calls for a cease-fire between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, and for a peace settlement.

In one move sure to rankle Mr. Putin, Mr. Trump voiced a clear commitment to NATO’s Article 5 principle of common defense, reassuring Europeans who had worried about his support for the alliance. He said Europeans should never question the U.S. commitment to NATO.

“The United States has demonstrated not merely with words but with its actions that we stand firmly behind Article 5, the mutual defense commitment,” Mr. Trump said.

The president raised concerns among allies in the spring when, during a visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels, he neglected to mention Article 5.

Mr. Trump also poked a symbolic finger in Mr. Putin’s eye by praising Poland’s efforts to deploy a missile defense shield, a move strenuously opposed by Moscow.

“We applaud Poland for its decision to move forward this week on acquiring from the United States the battle-tested Patriot air and missile defense system — the best anywhere in the world,” Mr. Trump said.

But Mr. Trump reminded the audience in Poland, “Our defense is not just a commitment of money; it is a commitment of will.”

“The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive,” Mr. Trump said. “Our own fight for the West does not begin on the battlefield; it begins with our minds, our wills and our souls.”

While warning that the West must always shut its borders to extremism, Mr. Trump said people on both sides of the Atlantic “are confronted by yet another danger — one firmly within our control.”

“This danger is invisible to some but familiar to the Poles — the steady creep of government bureaucracy that drains the vitality and wealth of the people,” Mr. Trump said. “The West became great not because of paperwork and regulations but because people were allowed to chase their dreams and pursue their destinies.”

The crowd interrupted Mr. Trump several times with cheers and flag-waving as he praised Poles’ courage in fighting historic aggressors from Germany and Russia.

The president also drew cheers as he recounted the movement inspired by Pope John Paul II in the 1980s to throw off communist Soviet oppression and embrace the message of “We want God.”

During a meeting with leaders of 12 central and Eastern European nations, Mr. Trump said they are still suffering the effects of their decades under Soviet control after World War II.

“It’s been 28 years since your brave citizens lifted the Iron Curtain and defeated communism, yet much of the infrastructure within central and Eastern Europe has remained a relic of the old Soviet era,” Mr. Trump said. “Your people have been held back by the old roads, railways and pipelines that still operate on restrictive systems.”

He praised the “Three Seas Initiative,” an alliance of nations that aim to rebuild the region. In another swipe at Mr. Putin, the president said the initiative “binds you to all of Europe and, indeed, to the West.”

Mr. Trump also issued a challenge to Russia’s dominance of energy markets in Poland and other “Three Seas” countries by inviting them to buy more fuel from the U.S.

“America is eager to expand our partnership with you,” he said. “We are committed to securing your access to alternate sources of energy so that Poland and its neighbors are never again held hostage to a single supplier of energy.”

He said Americans, Poles and the nations of Europe must renew their traditions to “value individual freedom and sovereignty.”

“We must work together to counter forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the South or the East, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are,” Mr. Trump said. “As the Polish experience reminds us — the defense of the West ultimately rests not only on means but also on the will of its people to prevail.”

Before the speech, the president and first lady Melania Trump laid a wreath at a memorial to the Warsaw Uprising, which commemorates the violent resistance against Nazi German occupation in 1944.

S.A. Miller and Andrea Noble contributed to this report.

Source: www.washingtontimes.com stories: Politics

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