By JILL COLVIN and DEB RIECHMANN Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday about nuclear weapons, the possibility of getting China into a three-party arms control pact and the ongoing crisis in Venezuela where Moscow is propping up the current government over the U.S.-backed opposition.
During their conversation, which lasted more than an hour, they also discussed North Korea, Ukraine, U.S.-Russia trade and “very, very briefly” special counsel Robert Mueller’s just completed report on Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said.
“Had a long and very good conversation with President Putin of Russia,” Trump tweeted after the call. “As I have always said, long before the Witch Hunt started, getting along with Russia, China, and everyone is a good thing, not a bad thing.
“We discussed Trade, Venezuela, Ukraine, North Korea, Nuclear Arms Control and even the ‘Russian Hoax.’ Very productive talk!”
Sanders did not say which arms control agreement they discussed, but the Russian state news agency Tass reported that they talked about the New START treaty, the last major arms-control treaty remaining between the U.S. and Russia.
The treaty, which was signed in 2010 and expires in 2021, restricts both the U.S. and Russia to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads on a maximum of 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic bombers.
“There was a discussion about having — extending the current nuclear agreement — as well as discussions about potentially starting a new one that could include China as well,” Sanders said.
Trump earlier pulled the plug on a decades-old nuclear arms treaty with Russia. Trump accused Moscow of violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with “impunity” by deploying missiles banned by the pact. Moscow denies violating it and has accused Washington of being in non-compliance.
Trump’s decision to exit the INF treaty reflects his administration’s view that it was an unacceptable obstacle to more forcefully confronting not only Russia but also China. China’s military has grown mightily since that treaty was signed, and the pact has prevented the U.S. from deploying weapons to counter some of those being developed by Beijing.
“The world has moved on from the Cold War and its bilateral arms control treaties that cover limited types of nuclear weapons or only certain ranges of adversary missiles,” national security adviser John Bolton told The Associated Press last week. “Russia and China must be brought to the table.”
A Kremlin readout of the call said the two presidents confirmed their mutual desire “to intensify dialogue in various fields, including on issues of strategic stability,” but gave no details.
Sanders said the two leaders spoke extensively about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un traveled to Russia last week to meet with Putin. She said Trump said several times that it was important for Russia to continue to help put pressure on North Korea to denuclearize.
The statement released by the Kremlin after Friday’s call said Putin stressed that “Pyongyang’s conscientious fulfillment of its obligations should be accompanied by reciprocal steps to reduce sanctions pressure on North Korea.”
On Venezuela, Sanders said Trump made it clear that the United States stands with the people of the South American country and their need for food, water and medical supplies. “The president reiterated that sentiment several times throughout the call,” Sanders said.
The U.S. and about 50 other nations take the position that President Nicolas Maduro’s re-election last year was irrevocably marred by fraud and he is not the legitimate president of Venezuela. In January, the administration took the unusual step of recognizing Juan Guaido, the opposition leader of the National Assembly, as interim president. Russia is helping to support Maduro’s embattled government.
The Kremlin said that during the call, Putin stressed that only the Venezuelan people have the right to determine the future of their country. The statement said that outside interference in internal affairs and attempts at forceful regime change in Caracas undermine the prospects for a political settlement of the crisis.
Sanders said Putin and Trump talked for a short time about the Mueller report, but she dodged a question about whether they had discussed Russian election interference, instead blaming the Obama administration for not doing enough to stop it before the 2016 election.
“Very, very briefly it was discussed, essentially in the context of that it’s over and there was no collusion, which I’m pretty sure both leaders were very well aware of long before this call took place,” Sanders said.
She said the part of the conversation dealing with Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election was “very quick.”
“But what I can tell you is that this administration — unlike the previous one — takes election meddling seriously, and we’re going to do everything that we can to prevent it from happening.”