On 20 March 2018, President Donald Trump was criticized in the media and by fellow politicians for calling Vladimir Putin to congratulate him on the results of Russia’s latest election:
An American president does not lead the Free World by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections. 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. https://t.co/lcQTBi7CA1
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) March 20, 2018
Amid the controversy, the White House defended the President’s decision to do so in light of controversy over the integrity of Russia’s elections:
Trump’s overture to Putin was criticized by top senators in his own Republican party, who called Sunday’s election a sham. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said there was a “lack of credibility in tallying the result.”
When asked if Russia’s election was free and fair, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders responded: “We don’t get to dictate how other countries operate.”
Putin won a landslide victory to extend his rule over the world’s largest country for six more years at a time when his ties with the West are on a hostile trajectory … The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said there had been no real choice in Russia’s presidential election and complained it had been marked by unfair pressure on critical voices.
The U.S. State Department endorsed the OSCE’s preliminary findings, said spokeswoman Heather Nauert, and called Trump’s call to Putin “protocol.”
The following day, a number of readers asked whether it was true that the action for which Trump was criticized was one in which President Obama engaged in 2012.
A 9 March 2012 Foreign Policy article addressed the same circumstances under President Obama, alluding to the same concerns about electoral integrity within Russia when Putin succeeded President Dmitry Medvedev:
The Russian people and international observers may not see last Sunday’s presidential election in Russia as legitimate, but President Barack Obama has now officially endorsed the return of Russian past and future President Vladimir Putin.
“President Obama called Russian President-elect and Prime Minister Putin to congratulate him on his recent victory in the Russian Presidential election,” the White House said in a late Friday afternoon statement (read: news dump) about the Friday morning phone call between the two leaders.
“President Obama and President-Elect Putin agreed to continue discussions on areas where the United States and Russia have differed, including Syria and missile defense,” [a] statement read. “President Obama and President-Elect Putin agreed to continue their efforts to find common ground and remove obstacles to better relations.”
The State Department’s statement went on to note concerns listed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe about the election, including that it was not a level playing field to begin with, that government resources were used for partisan purposes, and that procedural irregularities emerged on the day of the election, throwing its results into question.
In 2012, the relationship between Russia and the United States had not yet deteriorated amid accusations of domestic election hacking and spy games, although it could best be described as contentious. A 2014 Congressional report detailed how the “Magnitsky list,” which targeted specific individuals for sanctions, which along with the so-called adoption ban and Russia’s increasing aggression against Ukraine contributed to roadblocks in Moscow’s relationship with the United States and the European Union:
The EU joined the United States in condemning the March 16 Crimea referendum as illegal and refusing to recognize its outcome. The EU has also joined the United States in taking steps to diplomatically isolate Russia, including by suspending talks on a visa waiver agreement that has been a priority of the Russian government and on a new framework agreement under which the EU would help develop and modernize Russia’s economy. On March 17, EU foreign ministers imposed a visa ban and asset freeze on 21 officials involved in the takeover of Crimea, and added an additional 12 names to the blacklist on March 21. EU leaders have threatened to adopt considerably wider economic and financial sanctions against Russia should it take additional actions with relation to territory in eastern Ukraine.
While the geopolitical situation has shifted, the claim is true. In both scenarios, Presidents Obama and Trump congratulated Vladimir Putin on an electoral “win” despite international and domestic objections about the integrity of Russia’s elections.