WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Donald Trump on January 27 said that it is premature to discuss the possibility of lifting sanctions against Russia, though his senior adviser said earlier in the day that such a move was "under consideration."
The comments by Trump and Kellyanne Conway came one day before Trump's first postinaugural telephone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin and amid speculation in Washington that Trump could remove sanctions imposed by his predecessor, Barack Obama, over Moscow's interference in Ukraine and alleged interference in the U.S. presidential election.
At a joint news conference in the White House with Britain's visiting Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump brushed off a question about the possibility of lifting sanctions on Russia.
"As far as the sanctions, very early to be talking about that," Trump told reporters following his talks with May, his first face-to-face meeting with a foreign leader since his inauguration last week.
Earlier on January 27, Conway was asked in a television interview whether the issue of sanctions would be "on the table right away."
"All of that is under consideration," Conway said.
At his news conference with May, Trump said that he hopes to have a "fantastic relationship" with Putin, while conceding that this might not occur.
May, for her part, said U.S. and EU sanctions should stay in place pending full implementation of the Minsk accords aimed at bringing an end to the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has killed more than 9,750 people since April 2014.
"We believe the sanctions should continue until we see that Minsk agreement fully implemented, and we've been continuing to argue that inside the European Union," she said.
Washington has been awash in speculation this week that Trump is closely examining the possibility of removing sanctions against Moscow over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea territory and backing of armed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The reports triggered a backlash of criticism from some Republican lawmakers, including U.S. Senator John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
In a critical statement on January 27, McCain vowed to pursue legislation that would cement sanctions against Russia into law if Trump tries to lift the punitive measures.
"For the sake of America's national security and that of our allies, I hope President Trump will put an end to this speculation and reject such a reckless course," McCain said. "If he does not, I will work with my colleagues to codify sanctions against Russia into law."
Because Obama used executive orders to impose several waves of sanctions to punish Russia for its 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea territory and its backing of armed separatists in eastern Ukraine, Trump could undo these measures with his own executive orders.
But tegislation to enshrine the sanctions in law would tie Trump's hands in the matter, and lawmakers could override any White House veto should such a bill garner sufficient support in both houses of Congress.
Another Republican senator, Rob Portman of Ohio, also backed the idea of putting the sanctions into law, saying that lifting the punitive measures would send "a dangerous message."
"We must stand by our allies in the region, including Ukraine," Portman, co-chairman of the Senate Ukraine Caucus, said in a January 27 statement.
Asked whether Russia would have to change its ways in order for the United States to ease sanctions -- a reference to Moscow's intervention in Ukraine and Syria -- Conway said that Trump "will call out other nations when he believes [what they are doing is] not in the American interest, in the interest of humanity."
"But that's what these conversations are for, these private conversations with world leaders," she said.
Conway spoke after Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that Trump and Putin are due to speak by phone on January 28.
The White House confirmed that and said Trump will also speak to German Chancelllor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande.
The Reuters news agency quoted an unnamed source in Berlin as saying that Merkel's conversation with Trump is expected to focus on Russia.
Peskov said the Putin-Trump call is expected to be held late in the day Moscow time. He stressed that it is an initial contact, saying that "one should hardly expect that this phone call will involve substantive discussions across the whole range of issues."
Peskov said that he has no information about the possibility of an order from Trump lifting sanctions.
In a separate appearance on CBS, Conway said that Trump and Putin are likely to discuss the fight against Islamic militants among other issues.
"I assume they will discuss, in the interests of their respective countries, how to come together and work together on issues where you can find common ground and where these two nations could maybe defeat radical Islamic terrorism," she said.
Trump has praised Putin and voiced hope for improvements in relations with Russia, which have been badly strained by Moscow's seizure of Crimea and support for separatists in a war in eastern Ukraine, as well as what U.S. intelligence officials say was Russian interference on Trump's behalf in the U.S. presidential election.
Asked about rumors that Trump is considering an order to lift U.S. sanctions against Russia, Peskov said that he has no information about it.
The White House said after Trump was sworn in that defeating "radical Islamic terror groups" will be the top foreign policy priority and that the United States will "pursue aggressive joint and coalition military operations when necessary" to achieve that goal.
Speaking about the planned phone call on the CBS program This Morning on January 27, Conway said: "I assume they will discuss, in the interests of their respective countries, how to come together and work together on issues where you can find common ground and where these two nations could maybe defeat radical Islamic terrorism."
Speaking at a news conference in December, Putin cited Trump as saying that Russian-U.S. relations couldn't be worse and added: "I agree with him. Together we'll think about how to improve things," Putin said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that U.S. and Russian interests "obviously coincide" and that Moscow is ready to consider concrete proposals from the Trump administration.
"Let me remind you that [Putin] called 18 months ago for the formation of a full-fledged, universal front for fighting terrorism, and this initiative is still on the table," Lavrov said on January 23.
In his January 27 statement, McCain said Putin "will never be our partner in fighting" Islamic State militants and accused the Russian leader of being a "murderer and a thug who seeks to undermine American national security interests."
McCain is a vocal hawk on Moscow who has repeatedly been accused by the Kremlin of stoking anti-Russian sentiment.
Trump and Putin last spoke after the November 8 election, when Putin called to congratulate Trump on his victory.
Meanwhile, in Berlin, a German government spokesman declined to confirm that Chancellor Angela Merkel was likely to speak on the telephone with Trump on January 28.
Ulrike Demmer, a deputy government spokesman, told reporters that such telephone conversations are only confirmed after they have taken place.
Earlier on January 27, the Reuters news agency quoted an unnamed source in Berlin as saying Merkel and Trump will speak on the phone and that their conversation is expected to focus on Russia.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa, TASS, and Interfax