President Donald Trump's persistent overtures toward Russia are placing him increasingly at odds with his national security and foreign policy advisers, who have long urged a more cautious approach to dealing with the foreign adversary.
The uneasy dynamic between the president and top aides has been exacerbated by the revelation this week of an extended dinner conversation between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the recent summit in Germany. The previously undisclosed conversation, which occurred a few hours after their official bilateral meeting, raised red flags with advisers already concerned by the president's tendency to shun protocol and press ahead with outreach toward Russia, according to two U.S. officials and three top foreign officials.
The officials spoke only on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Deep divisions are increasingly apparent within the administration on the best way to approach Moscow in the midst of U.S. investigations into Russian meddling in the American presidential election. Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that the Russian government sought to tip the election in his favor and has dismissed investigations into the possibility of collusion between his campaign and Moscow as a "witch hunt."
Some top aides, including National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster, have been warning that Putin is not to be trusted. An intelligence officer-turned-politician, Putin is known for steering discussions in his own favor.
The three foreign officials who have spoken with top Trump advisers described a disconnect, or "mixed signals," between Trump and his team over Russia, highlighting a lack of a clear policy. U.S. officials echoed that sentiment, with one saying diplomats and intelligence officials were "dumbfounded" by the president's approach, particularly given the evidence of Russia's election meddling. McMaster expressed his disapproval of Trump's course to foreign officials during the lead-up to his trip to Germany. The general specifically said he'd disagreed with Trump's decision to hold an Oval Office meeting in May with top Russian diplomats and with the president's general reluctance to speak out against Russian aggression in Europe, according to the three foreign officials.
McMaster and other national security aides also advised the president against holding an official bilateral meeting with Putin.
In a highly unusual move, McMaster did not attend the bilateral meeting with Putin. Only Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and a translator made up the U.S. side.
Meetings with such critical national security implications typically include a broader team, including the national security adviser and a regional specialist from the National Security Council — in this case, the head of the Russia directorate, a position recently filled by Russia expert Fiona Hill.
Foreign and U.S. officials said the Russians recommended that a note taker be present in the bare-bones official bilateral meeting. But Trump, who has repeatedly expressed concern over leaks, refused, instead relying on Tillerson to document the meeting. The session was scheduled for 30 minutes but stretched to more than two hours.
The White House did not respond to questions about Trump's refusal to have a note taker for his meeting with Putin, or about whether McMaster communicated his concerns to the president. The formalities and discipline of diplomacy have been a rough fit for Trump, whose reputation as a businessman was that of a freewheeling, impulsive dealmaker.