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Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Earlier this year in the thick of his election campaign, Vladimir Putin released a propaganda video promoting Russia's "invincible" new generation of nuclear weapons.

Why it matters: One scene in particular caught President Trump's attention, according to sources with direct knowledge. The motion graphic in Putin's video appeared to show missiles raining down on Florida — the home of Trump's Mar-a-Lago club.

  • At the time, former CIA Director Michael Hayden said on CNNthat "one of the stunning aspects" of the demonstration video was that the Russians "would actually use an absolutely recognizable part of the United States to show where the targeting was."
  • "Clearly he [Putin] wanted us to see that," Hayden said.

Trump stayed publicly silent. But privately, he raged. He told aides he understood this was Putin playing up to the crowds for his election but even so it was "over the line," said a source familiar with Trump's private comments.

Trump lashed out at the Russian president in a phone call, according to sources with direct knowledge. A source with knowledge of the president's conversations with Putin told me this direct criticism from Trump was unprecedented in their recollection. "Usually it's a bit of a love fest," in their phone calls, the source said.

  • The White House has never acknowledged this incident. When I gave the press shop full visibility of this reporting 24 hours before deadline, a National Security Council spokesperson eventually replied: "No comment."

Between the lines: Here's what I've pieced together, according to sources with knowledge of the incident, including one source who has reviewed the transcript of the Trump-Putin call but recalled it to me from their memory rather than written notes...

  • The call happened on Tuesday, March 20. You might remember this call; it was the one in which the Washington Post revealed that Trump had ignored his aides' advice printed on note cards — "DO NOT CONGRATULATE" — and went ahead and congratulated Putin on his election victory.
  • In the source's recollection, Trump told Putin he thought it was "outrageous" that he'd put out the nuclear weapons video.
  • Trump said, "I called up Theresa [May] and Angela [Merkel] and they agree with me," the source recalled.
  • "And the other day, I saw you say you need a new arms deal," Trump told Putin, in the source's recollection. "So I guess that was just election talk. I'm glad to hear you weren't serious about it."
  • Then Trump added: "I’ve already increased defense spending, modernized our nuclear weapons...We can do more, so if you want to do an arms race you’ll lose."

Go deeper

2 hours ago - World

Special report: Trump's U.S.-China transformation

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Trump began his term by launching the trade war with China he had promised on the campaign trail. By mid-2020, however, Trump was no longer the public face of China policy-making as he became increasingly consumed with domestic troubles, giving his top aides carte blanche to pursue a cascade of tough-on-China policies.

Why it matters: Trump alone did not reshape the China relationship. But his trade war shattered global norms, paving the way for administration officials to pursue policies that just a few years earlier would have been unthinkable.

McConnell: Trump "provoked" Capitol mob

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Tuesday that the pro-Trump mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was "provoked by the president and other powerful people."

Why it matters: Trump was impeached by the House last week for "incitement of insurrection." McConnell has not said how he will vote in Trump's coming Senate impeachment trial, but sources told Axios' Mike Allen that the chances of him voting to convict are higher than 50%.

2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

GOP leaders skip Trump sendoff in favor of church with Biden

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in July. Photo by Erin Scott-Pool/Getty Images

Congressional leaders, including House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, will skip President Trump's departure ceremony in Maryland tomorrow morning in favor of attending mass with incoming President Joe Biden ahead of his inauguration, congressional sources familiar with their plans tell Axios.

Why it matters: Their decision is a clear sign of unity before Biden takes the oath of office.