WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump discussed Syria and the fight against Islamic State with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday in one of several calls with world leaders that the new U.S. president used to put his stamp on international affairs.
Trump’s call with Putin was their first since the New York businessman took office and came as officials said he was considering lifting sanctions on Moscow despite opposition from Democrats and Republicans at home and European allies abroad.
Neither the White House nor the Kremlin mentioned a discussion of sanctions in their statements about the roughly hour-long call.
“The positive call was a significant start to improving the relationship between the United States and Russia that is in need of repair,” the White House said. “Both President Trump and President Putin are hopeful that after today’s call the two sides can move quickly to tackle terrorism and other important issues of mutual concern.”
Former President Barack Obama strongly suggested in December that Putin personally authorized the computer hacks of Democratic Party emails that U.S. intelligence officials say were part of a Russian effort aimed at helping Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in the Nov. 8 election.
Trump’s relationship with Russia is being closely watched by the European Union, which teamed up with the United States to punish Moscow after its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Trump spoke to two top EU leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, on Saturday in addition to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
His call with Merkel, who had a very close relationship with Trump’s predecessor, former President Barack Obama, included a discussion about Russia, the Ukraine crisis, and NATO, the U.S. and German governments said.
Trump has described NATO as being obsolete, a comment that has alarmed long-time U.S. allies. A White House statement said he and Merkel agreed NATO must be capable of confronting “21rst century threats.”
Trump’s executive order restricting travel and instituting “extreme vetting” of visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries already puts him at odds with Merkel, whose embrace of Syrian refugees was praised by Obama even as it created political problems for her domestically.
Trump has said previously that Merkel made a “catastrophic mistake” by permitting more than a million refugees, mostly Muslims fleeing war in the Middle East, to come to her country.
In his call with Hollande, Trump “reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to NATO and noted the importance of all NATO allies sharing the burden on defense spending,” the White House said.
Hollande warned Trump against taking a protectionist approach, which he said would have economic and political consequences, according to a statement from the French president’s office.
The refugee order created confusion and chaotic scenes in airports on Saturday and largely overshadowed the news of Trump’s calls with foreign leaders, which took place throughout the day and which photographers captured in photos and video outside the Oval Office.
During his call with Japan’s Abe, Trump affirmed an “ironclad” U.S. commitment to ensuring Japan’s security. The two leaders also discussed the threat posed by North Korea. They plan to meet in Washington early next month.
Trump spoke to Australia’s Turnbull for 25 minutes and emphasized the close relationship between the two countries.
additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Andrea Shalal, Andrew Osborn, Alexander Winning, and Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Nick Zieminski
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