Earlier this month, President Donald Trump made a bold declaration: “Probably nobody’s been tougher on Russia than Donald Trump.”
As evidence, Trump noted that he had authorized the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats from the United States last month in the wake of nerve agent attack, allegedly at the hands of the Kremlin, on British soil.
“We did 60,” Trump said. “There is nobody been tougher on Russia.”
Except, well, not exactly. Leave aside, if you can, US history from Kennedy to Reagan, and examine only the actions of Trump.
According to The Washington Post, Trump was unhappy when he found out this his administration had expelled far more Russians than our US allies. Here’s the key piece of that story, which was written by Greg Jaffe, John Hudson and Phillip Rucker:
“The next day, when the expulsions were announced publicly, Trump erupted, officials said. To his shock and dismay, France and Germany were each expelling only four Russian officials — far fewer than the 60 his administration had decided on.
“The president, who seemed to believe that other individual countries would largely equal the United States, was furious that his administration was being portrayed in the media as taking by far the toughest stance on Russia.”
And that’s not the only example of tough talk from the Trump administration toward Russia being undermined by actions – or a lack thereof.
On Sunday, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley promised further sanctions against Russia for their refusal to condemn the chemical attack in Syria. “You will see that Russian sanctions will be coming down,” said Haley. “Secretary Mnuchin will be announcing those on Monday, if he hasn’t already.”
But, on Monday we found out that Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, would be announcing no such thing – largely because Trump himself wasn’t totally convinced he should do so.
Again, according to the Post, which broke the story:
“Trump conferred with his national security advisers later Sunday and told them he was upset the sanctions were being officially rolled out because he was not yet comfortable executing them, according to several people familiar with the plan.”
Those twin developments – coming hard on top of one another – go a long way to disrupting the White House’s preferred narrative that, contra to what the media reports, Trump has been super, super tough on Russia.
In fact, in each of these instances the actual story directly undermines the idea of Trump as tough on Russia.
In the first, he agreed to expel 60 diplomats solely to match what he thought our allies were going to do – and then was annoyed when he found out the US had pushed out far more Russians by comparison.
In the second, he left his UN ambassador to dangle while he backed away from a promise she made about Russia sanctions on national TV. Trump may, eventually, support the sanctions. Although, the Post suggests, not without more provocation from Russia: “Administration officials said Monday it was unlikely Trump would approve any additional sanctions without another triggering event by Russia, describing the strategy as being in a holding pattern.”
Regardless! Haley quite clearly was led to believe that the sanctions were a done deal when she mentioned them on Sunday. Either Trump wasn’t fully briefed on them or he changed his mind.
The story on Russia then is not how tough Trump has been – or plans to be. It is how he, time and time again, appears to be an outlier within his own administration when it comes to how to talk about and deal with Russia.
While the entire Intelligence Community has said, unanimously, that Russia actively sought to meddle in the 2016 election for the purposes of helping Trump and hurting Hillary Clinton, Trump has had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to that view. (He’s acknowledged, in a general sense, that Russia was behind the meddling efforts but finds ways to caveat that assertion almost every time he makes it.)
The entirety of Trump’s foreign policy and national security team – including Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo – believe Russia is a bad actor. “The historic conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, and now Russia, is caused by Russian bad behavior,” said Pompeo in his confirmation hearing last week.
Trump has been far less willing to speak ill of Russia or its President, Vladimir Putin.
“Getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing,” Trump said at a news conference with the leaders of three Baltic states last month. “Now maybe we will and maybe we won’t.” Asked directly whether Putin is a “friend or a foe,” Trump responded: “I’ll let you know. There will be a time when I’ll let you know. You’re going to find out very quickly.”
Which, if you’re keeping score at home, isn’t an answer.
There’s no question that the Trump administration has, at times, tried to be tough on Russia. But, in virtually every instance, the President has softened that blow – or wished that he had.