Biden Did Five Things In His First Phone Call With Putin That Trump Never Did

Trump spent years denying evidence of Russian interference in U.S. elections and cybersecurity hacks. Biden brought them up in the first phone call with Putin.

(left) Russian President Vladimir Putin during a video meeting in July 2020, thanking Russians who supported controversial constitutional reforms that would allow him to stay in office until 2036. (right) U.S. President Joe Biden speaks after signing an executive order aimed at boosting American manufacturing in January 2021. | Getty Images
(left) Russian President Vladimir Putin during a video meeting in July 2020, thanking Russians who supported controversial constitutional reforms that would allow him to stay in office until 2036. (right) U.S. President Joe Biden speaks after signing an executive order aimed at boosting American manufacturing in January 2021. | Getty Images

After years of former President Donald Trump cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin — to the mass confusion and concern of the U.S. intelligence community and national security officials — newly inaugurated President Joe Biden confronted Putin about five issues Trump never did, in his first phone call with the Russian leader.

The Biden White House released a readout Tuesday of the president’s call with Putin hours after the conversation, itself a departure from the previous administration’s modus operandi. The Trump White House stopped releasing call summaries of Trump’s conversations with foreign leaders, including Putin, after Trump's infamous phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, for which he was impeached — the first time.

The new readout, or call summary released for the public and prepared by staff, included these issues:

  • Support for Ukraine’s sovereignty
  • SolarWinds hack
  • Reports of Russian military placing cash bounties on killing of U.S. troops in Afghanistan
  • Election interference
  • Poisoning and arrest of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny

In one phone call, Biden staked out a new American position on several issues in a distinctly different approach than Trump, who often flattered Putin and even took his word over that of U.S. intelligence officials regarding evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Ukraine has been a thorny issue between Russia and the West for many years now, particularly following the 2014 Russian annexation and illegal occupation of Crimea, a peninsula in southern Ukraine. Because of that crisis and resultant war, which still continues in eastern Ukraine where Russia has also tried to stake out an illegal territorial claim, Ukraine has sought military aid and support from the United States in order to defend its sovereignty. Biden, according to the White House, “reaffirmed the United States’ firm support for Ukraine’s sovereignty” to Putin — a signal to the Russian president that the U.S. is watching, and potentially ready to step into any further conflicts.

When Trump spoke to Ukrainian President Zelensky in July 2019, he caused a scandal and outrage among members of his own administration when he pressured Zelensky to fabricate dirt on the Bidens — in exchange for U.S. military aid. Though Congress had approved an aid package to Ukraine, the Trump administration withheld it, an illegal act according to the Government Accountability Office. Many national security officials saw that event as yet another time Trump prioritized his own personal interests (at the time, winning re-election) over the country’s interests and needs. That attempted extortion undercut the U.S.-Ukraine relationship.

Biden also brought up other issues to Putin that Trump had been neglecting, including the shocking report of the Russian military offering cash bounties for the killing of American troops in Afghanistan.

The initial public reporting on the bounties came out in June 2020 — and multiple news outlets said White House officials had been briefed on it as early as March 2019. Trump tweeted that the story is “just another HOAX!” and did nothing to hold Putin accountable over the reports, upsetting veterans’ groups and families, who called Trump either a “coward” or “complicit.” Trump himself said, “I never discussed it with Putin.”

According to The Washington Post and The New York Times, the bounty plot led to the deaths of multiple U.S. service members in Afghanistan. Two mothers of slain soldiers who died in attacks in 2019 that could be related to the offered bounties spoke to CNBC in June 2020 and said they want answers, which Trump never provided.

Biden, who was then the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, harshly criticized Trump the day after the first bounty reports broke, and pointed to Trump’s long history of ingratiating himself with Putin.

“Not only has he failed to sanction or impose any kind of consequences on Russia with this egregious violation of international law, Donald Trump has continued his embarrassing campaign of deference and debasing himself before Vladimir Putin,” Biden said at a livestreamed town hall on June 27, 2020. “He has had this information, according to the Times, and yet he offered to host Putin in the United States and sought to invite Russia to rejoin the G7. His entire presidency has been a gift to Putin, but this is beyond the pale. It's a betrayal of the most sacred duty we bear as a nation to protect and equip our troops. And we send them into harm’s way.”

Biden, whose late son Beau served in the U.S. Army in Iraq, was often focused on U.S. troops in Afghanistan when he served as vice president under Barack Obama. He made multiple trips to visit troops there and still carries a card with him that shows the number of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, updated daily.

Now, in his first week as president, Biden confronted Putin over what he previously called an “egregious violation of international law.” According to Tuesday’s readout, Biden reiterated that the U.S. “will act firmly in defense of its national interests in response to actions by Russia that harm us or our allies.”

The other topics Biden discussed with Putin on Tuesday served that end: the SolarWinds hack and Russian interference in U.S. elections, both of which Trump downplayed or dismissed.

The SolarWinds hack was a major cybersecurity hack that targeted at least six U.S. government federal agencies in 2020, in addition to a number of other groups, and which many officials and experts attributed to Russia. Even Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in December 2020 on “The Mark Levin Show,” “This was a very significant effort, and I think it's the case that now we can say pretty clearly that it was the Russians that engaged in this activity.”

Trump, however, sought to deflect blame from Russia once again and tried to blame the hack on China instead. “The Cyber Hack is far greater in the Fake News Media than in actuality … Lamestream is, for mostly financial reasons, petrified of … discussing the possibility that it may be China (it may!),” he tweeted.

Trump also downplayed the Kremlin’s role in the brutal treatment of Russian opposition leader and activist Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned with the Russian nerve agent Novichok in August 2020 and only recently returned to Russia after medical treatment in Germany.

“I don’t know what exactly happened. I think it’s tragic, it’s terrible, it shouldn’t happen. We haven’t had any proof yet, but we will take a look,” Trump said in September.

The Biden administration has already called on the Kremlin to release Navalny immediately, as authorities arrested him upon his return to Russia on January 17. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday Biden raised concerns about Navalny’s treatment to Putin during their call and that he would keep all options on the table in response, including possible sanctions.

The Kremlin put out its own readout of the call. Both the U.S. and Russian summaries mention Biden and Putin discussing the nuclear weapons reduction treaty known as New START, but the Russian readout does not mention the SolarWinds hack, election interference, or bounties — not surprisingly, as all issues reflect negatively on Russia (and the government maintains denial of all of it). The only reference to Ukraine in the Russian summary is to “internal Ukrainian settlement,” also a distinction from Biden’s reported defense of Ukraine’s sovereignty.

“On the whole, the conversation between the leaders of Russia and the United States was of a businesslike and frank nature. [They] agreed to maintain contacts,” the Kremlin readout concluded. “Businesslike and frank” is a far cry from Trump’s tweets asking to be Putin’s best friend, and a likely indicator of what the new U.S. president’s approach to foreign policy will be going forward.

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