President Donald Trump surprised aides and allies alike by inviting his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to the White House for a one-on-one meeting.
The offer came at the end of a jocular, 41-minute phone call March 20 between the U.S. and Russian presidents, which caught Trump's aides off guard and surprised the Kremlin, reported The New Yorker.
A national security expert told the magazine that John Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, was surprised by the invitation, and both he and a senior adviser on Kremlin policy had expected the call to focus on Russian assistance on North Korea.
Trump instead went off script while chatting with Putin, and disregarded a written warning not to congratulate the Russian leader for his re-election win in a disputed election -- and the president fired national security adviser H.R. McMaster the day after the ignored talking point leaked.
The White House didn't reveal Trump's invitation in a readout of the call, but was instead announced days later by the Kremlin in an apparent effort to embarrass the president after the U.S. and its European allies expelled dozens of Russian diplomats over a nerve agent attack in Britain.
State Department officials worked to convince European allies to expel more diplomats to keep Trump from becoming angry that the U.S. was kicking out more -- which is exactly what happened, according to the Washington Post.
"Europeans, for their part, were also shocked," reported The New Yorker. "Here was the President of the United States not only refusing to take up America’s traditional leadership role but once again appearing to pull back from confronting Putin. When the Kremlin immediately put out the news of Trump’s invitation to Putin, it seemed to confirm that interpretation."
U.S. officials told the magazine that Trump remains committed to the Oval Office invitation, although Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton don't share his enthusiasm.
“Trump’s true feelings were reflected in that proposal," said Alexander Vershbow, who served as George W. Bush's ambassador to Russia. "He still feels hemmed in from establishing this great relationship with Putin."
The Russians have sent envoys to advocate for a meeting around Washington, and foreign minister Sergei Lavrov recently described Trump's invitation in detail.
“He returned to this topic a couple of times," Lavrov said in an invitation posted on the Russian foreign ministry's website. "So we let our American colleagues know that we do not want to impose, but we also do not want to be impolite, and that considering that President Trump made this proposal, we proceed from the position that he will make it concrete.”
Vershbow told the magazine that Russia was “increasingly despondent” about improving relations with the U.S., but are holding out hope that Trump will disregard his administration to pursue his own Kremlin policy.
One Republican adviser frequently consulted by the president told The New Yorker that Trump may have invited Putin to the White House to upstage his predecessors.
“Trump has a similar view that the last three Presidents had, which is, ‘All the problems related to Russia are the fault of my stupid predecessor,’” the adviser said, "‘and, through the power of my personal charm and charisma, I will be able to get him to fall in line with us.’"