“I think people misunderstand how strong this administration has been against Russia,” Haley said last week, at the same conference where Christie spoke. “I’ve seen it. They put sanctions on Russia. They expelled diplomats that were spies. [Trump] gave arms to Ukraine, which infuriated Russia. We also saw the fact that we increased our energy production, which hurts Russia. We are strengthening our military, which Russia hates. I think the reason people think that he’s not hard on Russia is maybe because of his tone.”
Haley was defending the administration, but she hit on an important problem. Trump’s tone is inescapable, and it continues to feed doubts about his commitment to hold Russia to account. McFaul noted to us the fact that the Trump administration has continued or even intensified some of Obama’s Russia policies in the areas of sanctions, strengthening NATO, and aiding Ukraine. “The problem,” McFaul said, “is that in all three of those dimensions, it’s not clear to me that President Trump supports any of them.” In yet another example of Trump undercutting his administration’s overall strategy, Trump has built up forces in eastern Europe and sanctioned Russia over its annexation of Crimea, but he’s also declined to answer whether he would recognize the annexation, and reportedly pointed out that the Ukrainian peninsula’s residents speak Russian.
Another consideration: Flattering Putin is likely to backfire, McFaul said. “With a guy like Putin, there’s going to be a price for good relationships,” he said. “He’s going to say to Trump, ‘You know what? I want to be your friend. I want a closer relationship between the U.S. and Russia. And you know what we need to do to get that? You need to lift sanctions.’ By defining good relations as the objective, it can lead to these detrimental outcomes.”
The risk of diminishing advisers and confusing foreign officials was clear from the Trump-Putin phone call on May 3. Trump would later tell reporters that Putin had assured him that Russia “is not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela”—an assertion that contradicted Pompeo’s insistence that Russia has indeed intervened and is dictating Maduro’s moves.
“To have it happen so consistently where the secretary of state, or secretary of defense, or the national security adviser go out and take a principled position and try to drive that home and is undercut by the president, that makes the government ineffective,” says Nicholas Burns, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a former undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Bush administration. “And if you’re the president, it makes him ineffective because it confuses the rest of the world about your true intentions.”
As Pompeo sits down with Putin in Sochi, he has vowed to raise issues including election interference, even as he declared in remarks with his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on Tuesday, “I’m here today because President Trump is committed to furthering this relationship.” Looming over the meeting, though, is Trump, whose conciliatory rhetoric could complicate Pompeo’s chances for a breakthrough. “People wonder, Is the president feckless; is he undisciplined; does he mean what he says? If he’s soft with Putin, is that actually American policy?” Burns asked. “Because Pompeo and Bolton have been appropriately tough. So it really hurts the president in the final analysis.”
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