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Jul 20, 2018 BY Scott Horsley

Is Trump The Toughest Ever On Russia?

President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin answer questions during a joint press conference after their summit on July 16 in Helsinki.
President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin answer questions during a joint press conference after their summit on July 16 in Helsinki.

President Trump is in the process of inviting Russian President Vladimir Putin to come to Washington, D.C., this fall to continue the talks they started in Helsinki earlier this week.

It's another sign of Trump's efforts to build closer ties with Moscow, even though he insists his administration has taken a hard line toward Russia.

"There's never been a president as tough on Russia as I have been," Trump told reporters on Wednesday.

That might sound like hyperbole. But in this case, there's actually some basis for the president's boast.

"When you actually look at the substance of what this administration has done, not the rhetoric but the substance, this administration has been much tougher on Russia than any in the post-Cold War era," said Daniel Vajdich, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Take military spending: Trump sought to add $1.4 billion for fiscal year 2018 to the European Reassurance Initiative — a military effort to deter Russian aggression. That's a 41 percent increase from the last year of the Obama administration. The president also agreed to send lethal weapons to Ukraine — a step that Obama resisted. And Trump gave U.S. forces in Syria more leeway to engage with Russian troops.

"Those loosened rules of engagement have resulted in direct military clashes with Russian militants and mercenaries on the ground, actually resulting in one incident in hundreds of casualties on the Russian side," Vajdich said.

The administration has also imposed sanctions on dozens of Russian oligarchs and government officials. And Trump has aggressively promoted U.S. energy exports, although so far that hasn't created much competition for Russia's oil and gas.

"Russian gas sales to Europe last year were at record levels," said Ed Chow, who studies energy and national security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Russians will always have a cost advantage. And if they want to protect market share, all they have to do is lower the price."

Whatever tough policies the White House may have adopted toward Moscow also have to be weighed against Trump's rhetoric, which is consistently friendly to Putin. He suggested inviting Russia to rejoin the G-7, a group Moscow was suspended from following the illegal annexation of Crimea. Trump also congratulated Putin on his suspect re-election victory, despite explicit instructions from his advisers.

"There's a real disconnect between the president's words and the underlying policy," said Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security.

While Trump has no qualms about criticizing leaders of allied countries like Germany's Angela Merkel, Canada's Justin Trudeau or the U.K.'s Theresa May, he almost always treats Putin with kid gloves.

"The president very rarely speaks about Putin's transgressions and when asked about them expresses the hope that everyone can get along," said Fontaine, a former national security adviser to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Just last week, Trump told reporters in the U.K., "If we could develop a relationship which is good for Russia, good for us, good for everybody, that would be great."

He went on to remind May how he agreed to expel 60 Russians — diplomats and suspected intelligence agents — last year in retaliation for the suspected poisoning of an ex-spy in Britain.

"And Germany did three," he added grimly.

The Washington Post reported Trump was irritated that the U.S. seemed to be taking stronger actions against Moscow than the Europeans were. The president was also reportedly reluctant to send those lethal weapons to Ukraine, arguing again that Europe should take the lead.

However grudging Trump's moves against Moscow might have been, though, his defenders say the actions speak for themselves.

"It is hard for me to believe that he was dragged kicking and screaming through each and every one of these decisions," Vajdich said.

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He Was Wrongly Convicted When They Were Teens. Now They're Building Their Lives Together

Brandy and De'Marchoe Carpenter got married two years ago — 13 days after he was released from prison. They started dating in 1994, but before they had their first kiss, he was arrested for a crime he didn't commit.
Brandy and De'Marchoe Carpenter got married two years ago — 13 days after he was released from prison. They started dating in 1994, but before they had their first kiss, he was arrested for a crime he didn't commit.

In the summer of 1994, in Tulsa, Okla., Brandy Carpenter, then 14, had just started dating her crush, 17-year-old De'Marchoe Carpenter.

But before they even had their first kiss, De'Marchoe was arrested for a murder he didn't commit.

At StoryCorps in May, De'Marchoe, 41, and Brandy, 38, remember what first drew them to each other, and the toll that prison took on their relationship.

"You always made me laugh and you always made me smile," Brandy says. "I always wanted you to be around."

They simply enjoyed each other's company. "We just hung out, sitting on the porch, talking," De'Marchoe says. "It was your eyes that allured me to you. They just dance. It seemed like we got close — and then I was arrested."

Brandy was confident in De'Marchoe's innocence. "I had no doubt that you would be coming home," she says. "I knew it was just a big misunderstanding."

De'Marchoe remembers Brandy showing up to his court date when he was to learn his verdict — that he'd been found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life plus 170 years in prison.

"I held my head up high, you know, I tried to maintain my composure," he says. "When I got back to my cell, you know, I put my head under my covers and I just cried. I remember I cried myself to sleep."

"I knew that they got it wrong," Brandy says. "They got it all wrong."

But then they lost contact. "I was writing letters and I felt like you stopped writing me," De'Marchoe says.

"And I felt like you stopped writing me," Brandy says. "But I think we figured out it was my mom not letting me know that I had those letters."

"It was 13 and a half years later when you came back into my life," De'Marchoe tells her. They reconnected through De'Marchoe's brother, who had given him Brandy's phone number at her request. They started talking regularly by phone, and then she applied successfully to be added to his visitors list.

"For the last six years of my incarceration, you know, you was there for me," he says. "You came to visit me every week."

"I remember coming in, having to take everything off — my earrings, my belt, my bracelets. I used to pray for this: 'I just wanna be able to hug him,' " Brandy says. "Now it's like, I can't sleep without you."

In 2016, 13 days after De'Marchoe was released from prison, Brandy and De'Marchoe Carpenter got married.

But he has to cope daily with anxiety caused by being in prison.

"I worry about you," Brandy says.

"Prison, it messed me up," he says. "To see someone getting stabbed and, you know, to be confined to a cell 23 hours a day, sometimes six months at a time when we're on lockdown, it had an effect on me in a terrible way."

"I don't believe people realize how bad your anxiety is," Brandy says. "They don't see the breakdowns, the meltdowns."

She recalls one early morning during his first days home. "I get up, and I look outside, I see you pulling out of the driveway in the truck," Brandy says.

De'Marchoe says he can feel an urge to spend time alone. "Sometimes I just wanna get up and leave — just because," he says. "And, you know, not have to worry about 'Where you goin'? What you doin'?' For me, it's like, for 17 years my mom told me what to do. For 22 years, prison officials told me what to do. I've never had the time where I called the shots for myself."

As for Brandy, she hopes their communication only gets stronger. "I just wish that you would let me know what's going through your mind so I can know how to help," she says. "But we've been through things worse than this — the visits, waiting on you to come home. If we can get through those things, we can get through these things."

Produced for Morning Edition by Aisha Turner.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

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