WASHINGTON • US President Donald Trump plans to invite President Vladimir Putin of Russia to visit Washington in autumn, the White House has said - an invitation that stunned the nation's top intelligence official, who said he was still groping for details of what the two leaders had discussed in their encounter this week in Helsinki.
"Say that again," director of national intelligence Dan Coats replied when Ms Andrea Mitchell of NBC broke the news while interviewing him at a security conference in Aspen, Colorado, on Thursday. "OK," Mr Coats said, taking a deep breath and chuckling awkwardly. "That's going to be special."
The announcement came as the White House spent a third day trying to explain statements made by Mr Trump after the Helsinki meeting, and as uncertainty spread throughout the government about whether he had reached agreements with Mr Putin on Syria and Ukraine, leaving his military and diplomatic corps in the dark.
Yielding to intense criticism, Mr Trump rejected a proposal by Mr Putin for Russia to question US citizens, including a former ambassador to Moscow, Mr Michael McFaul, in return for giving the United States access to 12 Russian military intelligence officers indicted on charges of trying to sabotage the 2016 presidential election.
Two hours after press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued that reversal, she said on Twitter that Mr Trump had asked his national security adviser John Bolton to invite Mr Putin, framing the decision as part of a dialogue that began in Helsinki and would continue at lower levels until the Russian President comes to Washington.
The White House did not announce a date. That means Mr Trump could meet Mr Putin again before the mid-term elections, giving him a chance to redress the widespread criticism of how he handled the first meeting and possibly injecting further volatility into the campaigns.
That's going to be special.
U.S. DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE DAN COATS, responding to news that US President Donald Trump plans to invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit Washington in autumn.
But to Mr Coats, who has been at odds with Mr Trump about whether Russia meddled in the election, the prospect of another one-on-one encounter was clearly rattling. He also expressed frustration that Mr Trump had chosen to meet Mr Putin in Helsinki with only their interpreters in the room.
Mr Coats said he expected details of the meeting to trickle out soon. But with Mr Trump not giving a full account, some officials worry the Russians now control the narrative. On Thursday, Bloomberg News reported that Mr Putin told diplomats he proposed to Mr Trump holding a referendum to help resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
In a tweet on Thursday, Mr Trump said he looked forward to a second meeting with Mr Putin "so that we can start implementing some of the many things discussed". He listed Ukraine, Israel's security, nuclear proliferation, trade, North Korea and Middle East peace.
At the Pentagon, Mr Trump's reference to Ukraine alarmed officials, who have tried to reassure skittish European allies that the US will stand with them to prevent Russia from carrying out the same predatory moves it imposed there.
If there was confusion about the future of Ukraine and Syria, there were open signs of dissent over Mr Trump's receptiveness to a proposal by Mr Putin that he turn over Americans to Russia as part of a politically motivated case against Mr Bill Browder, a US-born financier who has been highly critical of the Russian President.
Legal experts said Mr Trump has no authority to turn over Americans for questioning. The US does not have an extradition treaty with Russia.