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Trump's Refusal To Criticize Russia Will Likely Impact American Diplomats Working Overseas

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When President Trump was asked in Helsinki what has caused the steep decline in U.S.-Russia relations, he blamed both sides. He did not take that opportunity to lay out concerns about Russia's aggressive behavior in Europe. As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, that might make it harder now for U.S. diplomats to push back on Russia.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The Trump administration has had something of a split personality when it comes to Russia. Trump often has nice words for Vladimir Putin while his administration has expelled Russian diplomats, closed down consulates and supported Ukraine with lethal weapons - something the Obama administration never did. The recently retired U.S. ambassador to the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, Ian Kelly, says he often spoke about those policies as he tried to ease concerns in the region about the Trump administration.

IAN KELLY: We've ridden that bus about as far as we can ride it now. And I think those of us in the foreign service have been doing it, pointing to the sale of lethal arms to Ukraine and Georgia. But at a certain point when the president appears anyway to side with one of our adversaries and against our own government, it's very hard to just point to programs.

KELEMEN: Kelly, now a lecturer at Northwestern University, says he's still reeling from Trump's performance in Helsinki.

KELLY: Well, I wouldn't want to be in the position of my colleagues in the front-line states right now.

KELEMEN: Kelly retired in March. He says he used to just quote Defense Secretary Jim Mattis or U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley when trying to explain the Trump administration's policies. Steven Pifer, who was once a U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, says that may not work now.

STEVEN PIFER: It makes the job of the State Department and our embassies overseas much more difficult because, in effect, they're going to be saying, you know, look at our actions. And in most cases, American actions are pretty good in terms of support for NATO, support for Ukraine and pressure on Russia. But they have to find a very delicate way to say, in some cases, ignore what the president says. And he is the president, so his words do matter.

KELEMEN: Pifer, now a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, predicts it will be harder for U.S. diplomats to persuade Europe to maintain pressure on Russia if Trump doesn't seem to care. And he worries the U.S. will lose whatever leverage it had with Moscow.

PIFER: President Trump, when given the opportunity, did not name a single Russian misbehavior that has contributed to the decline in U.S.-Russian relations. If that's the message that President Putin is taking back home to Moscow, why should we expect that there are going to be any changes in Russian policy that have caused some of the problems over the last four years?

KELEMEN: Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer puts it more bluntly.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: When there's a bully around, as Putin is, you show strength, but President Trump showed abject weakness. You know what that means? The bully will continue to take advantage of him. If Donald Trump was such an easy mark in Helsinki, President Putin will realize he's an easy mark elsewhere.

KELEMEN: Russia's foreign minister described the meeting as better than super. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been notably silent, though he's expected to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee next week. For his part, President Trump says he simply misspoke when he raised doubts about Russia's interference in U.S. elections.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The sentence should've been, I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be Russia - sort of a double negative.

KELEMEN: The State Department is also in damage control mode, insisting that the administration will continue to confront Russia where it threatens U.S. interests or allies. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.