Donald Trump has a Russia problem.
Lying about ties to or conversations with Russian officials has dogged the Trump administration from the get go. First, former national security adviser Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn bit the dust after a series of contradictory statements regarding his interactions with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. Now, Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is under similar fire for ostensibly fibbing about his own interactions with Kislyak during the campaign. A few days later, a New York Times story broke that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, had even gotten in on the action.
News of these actions have provided ample fodder for Democrats—and a few Republicans—to justify a bipartisan, independent inquiry into the Trump administration’s conflicts of interest. Although there are three current congressional inquiries—one by the Senate Judiciary Committee, and two others by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, respectively—they mostly focus on Russia’s electoral interference and whether the Trump campaign were aware of such activities.
Yet as disturbing as Trump and his administration’s rhetoric and alleged collusion with the Russian government have been, there have been no obvious compromised policies. At best, the policy proposals coming out of the White House have been muddled. At worst, they’ve been incoherent and contradictory.
The Russians, it seems, are well aware. Dmitry Peskov—Putin’s spokesman, who, according to the unverified Steele dossier, was reportedly the Russian “handler” for the Trump campaign—noted that the Kremlin was waiting with “patience…for some kind of actions” as they had “heard different statements from President Trump.” Others, especially in the Russian media, have been less diplomatic.
Admittedly, Trump’s offer of “better relations” between the two powers worked better as a rhetorical device than it does a policy proposal. Although Trump, at various points throughout his campaign, offered Russia possible sanctions relief and cooperation on “counter-terrorism” efforts in Syria, the administration’s pro-Russian policies are lacking in substance. Rather, what matters is the geopolitical promise that Trump’s administration offers—enough of a retrenchment by key players in the global liberal order to allow Russia to “do its own thing.”
Instead of a calculated ideological shift, that retrenchment boils down to U.S. policy paralysis. Though this inaction has been, in part, the result of pushback from both Democrats and Republicans alike, it’s also hard to overstate how conflicted and contradictory the White House policy has been on anything.
The past week in particular has been instructive. Last Tuesday, Ambassador Nikki Haley, Trump’s appointed U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, clashed publicly with Russian officials in the U.N. Security Council following a vote on a measure that would have imposed sanctions on any actors using chemical weapons in the war in Syria. In her blunt, frustrated rebuke of Russia’s—and China’s—veto, she emphasized their “outrageous and indefensible choice” to “put their friends in the Assad regime ahead of our global security.” Already, some defenders of Trump’s foreign policy have condemned her “astonishing ignorance.”
Trump’s reported choice of two noted Kremlin critics for top posts crafting Russia policy indicated a possible shift from Trump’s campaign rhetoric—possibly in response to recent charges. On Thursday, Foreign Policy’s John Hudson reported that the White House had tapped Fiona Hill, a Brookings scholar and co-author of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, as its senior director for Europe and Russia. The Trump administration is reportedly eyeing Jon Huntsman, Obama’s former ambassador to China and director of the center-right Atlantic Council, as its ambassador to Russia. Though a long-time Trump supporter, Huntsman—who once slammed Obama’s efforts at a “reset” as a “Potemkin village in which we pretend the Kremlin is more of a partner than it is”—is an unlikely supporter of a detente with Russia.
The Sanctions Flashpoint
On February 19—less than a month after Trump took office—The New York Times reported that several Trump associates—including Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer, and Felix Sater, a business associate who helped Trump get a foot in the door in Russia—have been nursing a plan to lift Russian sanctions. Spearheaded by Andrey Artemenko, described by the Times as a “a Trump-style leader of a future Ukraine,” the plan involves a peace plan friendly to Russian interests, as well as a strategy to help oust Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko. To date, Cohen and Sater have “said they had not spoken to Mr. Trump about the proposal.”
Still, the main sanctions news came as a result of a process put in place by the Obama administration—a “technical fix” that was aimed at easing the strain placed on U.S. tech companies exporting goods to Russia.
Indeed, even if the administration were united in its desire to roll back sanctions, recent legislative proposals could prevent it from doing so. Anti-Trump Democrats and Republicans have latched onto Russia as a key point of resistance. Both houses of Congress have introduced their own protective measures—the Russia Sanctions Review Act (S.341/H.R.1059) and the Counteracting Russian Hostilities Act of 2017 (S.94). Though there are substantive differences between the proposed acts, they limit the executive’s power to roll back sanctions through a variety of channels, whether by requiring congressional reviews or outlining strict guidelines for “a very robust sanctions regime.”
In the end, the question is how much—if anything—did Russia expect from Trump? Whether or not there was a quid pro quo between the campaign and Russian authorities, as has been alleged by some (admittedly unverified) sources, is less important than whether Russia expected Trump to act in its interests. Yes, “Trump and his entire campaign team are precisely the kinds of fringe characters that Russians have traditionally cultivated,” writes Masha Gessen in the New York Review of Books. But there’s a crucial disclaimer attached to that point: these efforts often have “no measurable effect.”
Although the mainstream media narrative about Trump’s Russia ties has been fairly linear, in reality the situation appears to be anything but. As Evan Osnos of the New Yorker recently noted on Fresh Air, Russia’s interference—far from having a clear goal, at least at first—“was a little bit like a bank heist that instead of blowing the door off the safe and getting inside, they sort of inadvertently blew up the safe entirely.” Now it’s a matter of picking up the pieces.