WASHINGTON — President Trump plans to invite President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to visit Washington in the fall, the White House said Thursday — an invitation that stunned the nation’s top intelligence official, who said he was still groping for details of what the two leaders had discussed in their encounter this week in Helsinki, Finland.
“Say that again,” the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, replied when Andrea Mitchell of NBC broke the news while interviewing him at a security conference in Aspen, Colo. “O.K.,” Mr. Coats said, taking a deep breath and chuckling awkwardly. “That’s going to be special.”
The announcement came as the White House spent a third day trying to explain statements made by Mr. Trump after the Helsinki meeting, and as uncertainty spread throughout the government about whether he had reached agreements with Mr. Putin on Syria and Ukraine, leaving his military and diplomatic corps in the dark.
Yielding to intense criticism, Mr. Trump rejected a proposal by Mr. Putin for Russia to question American citizens, including a former ambassador to Moscow, Michael A. McFaul, in return for giving the United States access to 12 Russian military intelligence officers indicted on charges of trying to sabotage the 2016 presidential election.
Two hours after the press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, issued that reversal, she said on Twitter that Mr. Trump had asked his national security adviser, John R. Bolton, to invite Mr. Putin, framing the decision as part of a dialogue that began in Helsinki and would continue at lower levels until the Russian president comes to Washington.
Beyond saying the meeting would be in the fall, the White House did not announce a date. That means Mr. Trump could meet Mr. Putin again before the midterm elections, giving him a chance to redress the widespread criticism of how he handled the first meeting and possibly injecting further volatility into the campaigns.
But to Mr. Coats, who has been at odds with Mr. Trump about whether Russia meddled in the election, the prospect of another one-on-one encounter was clearly rattling. He said he would “look for a different way of doing it,” and expressed frustration that Mr. Trump had opted to meet Mr. Putin in Helsinki with only their interpreters in the room.
“If he had asked me how that ought to be conducted,” Mr. Coats said, “I would have suggested a different way. But that’s not my role; that’s not my job. So, it is what it is.”
Mr. Coats said he expected that the details of the meeting would trickle out in the coming weeks. But with Mr. Trump not giving a full account, some officials worry that the Russians now control the narrative. On Thursday, Bloomberg News reported that Mr. Putin told diplomats that he proposed to Mr. Trump holding a referendum to help resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Inundated with questions, the White House was either unable or unwilling to respond. A spokesman for the National Security Council said: “Presidents Trump and Putin discussed a wide range of national security issues in Helsinki. The U.S. position on Ukraine remains the same.”
(The Justice Department, for its part, described on Thursday its plan for countering cyberattacks and foreign influence campaigns, like Russia’s effort to intervene in the 2016 election.)
In a tweet Thursday morning, Mr. Trump said he looked forward to a second meeting with Mr. Putin “so that we can start implementing some of the many things discussed.” He listed Ukraine, Israel’s security, nuclear proliferation, trade, North Korea, and Middle East peace.
At the Pentagon, Mr. Trump’s reference to Ukraine alarmed officials, who have tried to reassure skittish European allies that the United States will stand with them to prevent Russia from carrying out the same predatory moves it imposed there.
Days before the summit meeting, military officials pressed the National Security Council for Mr. Trump’s proposed talking points and received no response. The lack of information handcuffed General Joseph L. Votel, the head of United States Central Command, at a news conference on Thursday.
“We have received no further direction than we’ve currently been operating under,” he said.
If there was confusion about the future of Ukraine and Syria, there were open signs of dissent over Mr. Trump’s receptiveness to a proposal by Mr. Putin that he turn over Americans to Russia as part of a politically-motivated case against William F. Browder, an American-born financier who has been highly critical of the Russian president.
“Yeah, that’s not going to happen,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, scheduled to air on Friday. “The administration is not going to send, force Americans to travel to Russia to be interrogated by Vladimir Putin and his team.”
Mr. Trump had praised the proposal on Monday as an “incredible offer.” Two days later, Ms. Sanders said he still viewed it as an “interesting idea” and was discussing it with his staff.
But senior officials recoiled at the idea of turning over Americans to Russia; one aide insisted that the idea had not gained traction in the government. A parade of prominent diplomats and other former officials expressed outrage that Mr. Trump was even considering it.
By Thursday afternoon, Ms. Sanders said in a statement, “It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it. Hopefully, President Putin will have the 12 identified Russians come to the United States to prove their innocence or guilt.”
Under the deal floated by Mr. Putin, Russia would have allowed the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, to question the 12 intelligence officers accused last week of hacking the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
In return, Mr. Trump would have granted access to Americans who Russia claims were involved in illegal dealings with Mr. Browder, who was blacklisted and convicted of tax evasion by Russia after he campaigned against corruption in the Russian business world.
Among those on the list is Mr. McFaul, a Stanford professor and Russia scholar who served in the White House and as ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama, as well as current and former officials from the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the intelligence agencies.
Mr. McFaul was critical of Mr. Putin and the Russian government during his tour in Moscow, and he has continued to write and speak about Russia. He described the proposal as “absolutely outrageous,” and said it was merely an attempt to intimidate him.
Since the Helsinki meeting, he has mounted a vigorous campaign on Twitter that drew support from an array of prominent figures, and the State Department has dismissed the allegations against him as “absurd.” Mrs. Clinton, a former secretary of state, said on Twitter: “Ambassador McFaul is a patriot who spent his career standing up for America. To see the White House even hesitate to defend a diplomat is deeply troubling.”
The heads of the national security agencies on Thursday said that Russia was still trying to influence United States elections, contradicting statements made by President Trump.
Four Democratic senators called for the Senate to pass a resolution demanding that the White House reject Mr. Putin’s proposal. “That President Trump would even consider handing over a former U.S. ambassador to Putin and his cronies for interrogation is bewildering,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader.
Legal experts said Mr. Trump had no authority to turn over Americans for questioning. The United States does not have an extradition treaty with Russia. Under a mutual legal assistance treaty between the two countries, the Justice Department can reject any request relating to a case it deems politically motivated — a classification it has long given to Russia’s case against Mr. Browder.
Still, the names on Russia’s list offered a telling glimpse into Mr. Putin’s grudges, as well as how he might have tried to appeal to Mr. Trump.
They include David J. Kramer, a former adviser to the State Department, now at the McCain Institute for International Leadership; Jonathan M. Winer, a former aide to Secretary of State John Kerry; and Todd Hyman, an official in the Department of Homeland Security.
What several of these people have in common is their involvement in, or support for, the Magnitsky Act, a law passed by Congress in 2012 that blacklisted Russian officials involved in human rights abuses. It was named for Sergei L. Magnitsky, a lawyer and auditor who worked for Mr. Browder and died after being beaten in his prison cell. Russian officials have long chafed at the Magnitsky Act and demanded that it be overturned.
Other people on the list have links to Christopher Steele, the British former intelligence agent who compiled a dossier claiming that the Russian government had compromising information about Mr. Trump and had conspired to hand the 2016 election to him.
Mr. Winer, who served as special envoy for Libya during the Obama administration, is a lawyer for Mr. Browder who knew Mr. Steele from his work on Russian organized crime during an earlier stint at the State Department. In September 2016, he circulated a two-page summary of Mr. Steele’s findings within the State Department.
Speaking before the White House’s statement, Mr. Winer said: “This is about harassment and intimidation by two people who wish to manipulate rule of law to go after one another’s opponents. It’s grossly abusive and in a rule of law country like the United States, it will go nowhere.”
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