US President Donald Trump will speak Saturday by telephone with five world leaders — most significantly Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Germany’s Angela Merkel — in what may be his biggest day of diplomacy yet.
Saturday’s call will be Trump’s first phone conversation with the Russian President since his inauguration last week, and one whose outcome will be closely studied.
Both Trump and Putin have said they would like to see warmer ties between their two nations. However, relations between Trump and his team and Russia have been under scrutiny following allegations that Moscow meddled in the US 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’ll see what happens,” Trump said of the call, which Vice President Mike Pence will also join.
“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 has sought to lower expectations, suggesting Putin is simply calling as a matter of protocol to congratulate the US leader on his inauguration.
But there is some excitement in Russia about a possible detente between Washington and Moscow under the Trump administration.
Obama imposed sanctions on Russia throughout his eight years in office 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 speaks with Putin, Trump will hold calls with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a key ally in Asia, and Merkel.
Later Saturday, he will speak with French President François Hollande and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Pence is not listed as joining any of those calls.
Trump’s calls with Abe and Turnbull come days after he signed an executive order withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a massive trade deal negotiated by the Obama administration that Congress had not yet ratified. Both Abe and Turnbull had supported TPP.
The flurry of telephone diplomacy comes a day after Trump received his first foreign leader at the White House, UK Prime Minister Theresa May, who announced that Trump will make a state visit to the UK.
In a speech to US 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 US-Mexico border culminated in Peña Nieto canceling a planned trip to Washington.
Fences to mend?
Trump’s call with the German Chancellor may not be the easiest of the day.
In an interview this month with the Times of London and the German publication Bild, the US 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 UK 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.”
Trump may also have to build bridges with France, traditionally a close ally of the United States.
Hollande, who will stand down as President this spring, was outspoken at a joint news conference Friday with Merkel about the “challenges” the Trump administration poses for Europe in terms of trade and global diplomacy.
“We of course have to speak to Donald Trump, as he was chosen by the Americans to be their President. But we have to do it with a European point of view and promote our interests and values,” he said in Berlin.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and his newly appointed German counterpart, Sigmar Gabriel, also presented a united European front in a joint news conference Saturday in Paris ahead of Trump’s calls.
“We are convinced that a strong Europe is in the interest of all Europeans, and the world, and in the interest of the United States itself,” Ayrault said.
“Not only with the current US President, but also with another US administration, the relationship might have changed,” Gabriel said. “We have to be confident in dealing with this reality. Europe has no reason to be scared. We have something to offer that you can’t find anywhere else in this world.”
Commentators will have to rely on readouts from the White House and Kremlin later as they try to glean a sense of how the conversation went between Trump and Putin.
In a tweet Saturday, Alexey Pushkov, a Russian senator, labeled the call between the two men as “the most important” of all the conversations Trump is planning with world leaders.
“The Trump-Putin conversation will give a new beginning to the fight against (ISIS), a solution of the crises in Syria, Ukraine. Merkel only has old solutions,” Pushkov, a former chairman of the parliamentary foreign relations committee, posted on Twitter.