Michael Anton, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, defended President Donald Trump on Tuesday for being "rhetorically tough" on Russia in a number of ways, but insisted his actions matter even more.
"This administration is actually rhetorically tough on Russia in a number of different venues," Anton told CNN. "The actions are what matter more than the rhetoric."
The president's telephone call to Russian President Vladimir Putin to congratulate him on his election win was cordial, Anton said, and Trump values the "leader to leader relationship" he has with Putin.
"He wants to see relations improve if the Russian government chooses to take another path," Anton said. "And he thinks maintaining cordial relations at the top is the one viable way to see the relations improve if the Russians choose another path."
However, Russia has not yet chosen other actions, Anton said, so the Trump administration hopes "showing a tough face and remaining tough in action will bring about a change of heart on the part of the Russian government. That hasn't happened, but the door is still open for them to have that change of heart and act differently."
He also said he did not know what CNN was talking about with a question about being easier on Putin than the leaders of traditional allies such as Mexico and Australia.
"I don't know exactly what you're referring to," he said. "You might be referring to some leaked transcripts of private phone calls where the president did deliver tough messages to allies. But the president delivered a combination of tough and positive messages to allies, adversaries and countries in the middle alike."
The United States has interests it must defend, Anton said.
"We have unbalanced trade relationships with some allies," he told CNN. "[Trump's] been willing to call this out in a way that hasn't been called out in decades. We're seeing results because of that. We're getting NAFTA renegotiated, making progress on renegotiating the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement. These things are positive steps that require a little tough language to get going, and also requires an acknowledgement of truth that has been denied or ignored for far too long."
He also said, Trump brought up serious concerns in his call last week, including strategic stability in the face of nuclear weapons, and the president "was pointed in his criticism of Putins' recent nuclear saber rattling.
"I think it is inaccurate to say his rhetoric toward Vladimir Putin or personal conversations is always positive," Anton said.
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