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White House defends Trump's 'very good' Putin call

Trump, they said, did not focus on allegations that the recent Russian election process was not a fair one because the U.S. should not "get to dictate how other countries operate."

WASHINGTON — The White House said Tuesday that President Donald Trump's congratulatory call to Russian President Vladimir Putin on his recent re-election wasn't focused on allegations that election meddling or fraud may have contributed to that victory because the United States should not "get to dictate how other countries operate."

"We’re focused on our elections," Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday when asked if Trump felt Russia's election, which excluded several Putin critics and sparked accounts of potential vote tampering, was "free and fair."

"We don’t get to dictate how other countries operate," she said. "What we do know is that Putin has been elected in their country, and that’s not something that we can dictate to them, how they operate. We can only focus on the freeness and fairness of our elections."

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U.S. presidents have often spoken out against undemocratic elections — a custom Trump has not followed so far as president, marking a major departure from his predecessors. However, the Trump administration did impose sanctions on Venezuela last year in the wake of what it dubbed "sham" elections there.

Sanders told reporters she did not know if the fairness of the recent Russian election had been discussed at all on the call between the two leaders. She also said she did not know if Trump had raised the topics of Russian meddling in U.S. elections and evidence of the Kremlin's recent chemical weapons attack on an ex-Russian spy in the U.K.

None of those topics were mentioned in the readout of the call the White House released after the conversation. Trump told reporters Tuesday that he and Putin had had a "very good call" and would "probably get together in the not too distant future," though the White House said no date has been set.

The early reaction from Capitol Hill was not positive. “An American president does not lead the free world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections," Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., said in a blistering statement Tuesday afternoon. "And by doing so with Vladimir Putin, President Trump insulted every Russian citizen who was denied the right to vote in a free and fair election to determine their country's future, including the countless Russian patriots who have risked so much to protest and resist Putin's regime.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the call was a missed opportunity. "Every time you talk to Putin and you give him a pass that emboldens him," he said Tuesday. "It's clear to me we're not sending the right message to Putin about his behavior in our own backyard, and we had a chance to reinforce an ally and we missed that opportunity."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, asked by NBC News about the message Trump was sending with Tuesday's call, said "the president can call whomever he chooses," but added: "When I look at a Russian election, what I see is a lack of credibility in tallying the results. ... Calling [Putin] wouldn’t have been high on my list."

The call between the U.S. and Russian leaders came the same day that the Senate Intelligence Committee released their recommendations for improving U.S. election infrastructure and preventing further hacks or meddling by foreign actors in a report that listed Russian efforts to undermine the 2016 U.S. election process.

"The Russians were relentless in attempting to meddle in the 2016 elections, and they will continue their efforts to undermine public confidence in Western democracies and in the legitimacy of our elections," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said at a news conference Tuesday.

The committee will hold an open hearing Wednesday about efforts to improve election security, as well as state-by-state cybersecurity efforts.