Since taking office, President Donald Trump and his administration have taken repeated actions backing up his pro-Russia and pro-Putin stances from the campaign trail.
One notable instance occurred on May 25, 2017, when Trump was speaking at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s annual summit in Brussels, Belgium, and failed to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to NATO’s Article 5, which asserts that an attack against one member of the treaty is considered an attack on all members. Though Article 5 has only ever been invoked once, in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, it is nevertheless seen as one of the treaty’s most important provisions, especially as a defense against Russian aggression. After the summit, Politico reported that an earlier draft of Trump’s speech included an affirmation of Article 5, but that the sentence was deleted at the last minute without the knowledge of Trump’s national security team. (Trump eventually did reaffirm the U.S.’s commitment to Article 5 in a speech in Poland on July 6, 2017.) Trump has since presented NATO as a protection racket. He has also repeatedly attacked the EU, often actively supporting anti-EU Kremlin-backed parties.
The next day, Trump again demonstrated his pro-Putin tendencies at the G-20 summit in Germany. During the summit, Trump had at least two meetings with Putin lasting for a total of at least three hours, all without any U.S. diplomatic staff present. The administration failed to disclose one of these meetings, which took place during a dinner for all of the world leaders in attendance at the summit. Trump responded to reports regarding the conversation on Twitter, saying, “Fake News story of secret dinner with Putin is ‘sick.’ All G 20 leaders, and spouses, were invited by the Chancellor of Germany. Press knew!” According to The Washington Post, however, the press did not learn of the conversation until several days later.
Even when Congress passed stringent sanctions against Russia, Trump made it clear that he had no interest in rebuffing Putin. After the House and Senate passed the “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act,” which also limits the executive branch’s authority to roll back previously passed sanctions, with a veto-proof majority, Trump begrudgingly signed the bill, but released a signing statement criticizing the bill, even calling sections of it unconstitutional. Since then, he has failed to properly implement this sanctions legislation, delaying action and limiting enforcement.
In December 2017, Trump exchanged two phone calls with Putin that reinforced concerns about Trump’s pro-Putin attitude. On December 14, Trump called Putin to thank the Russian president for “acknowledging America’s strong economic performance in [Putin’s] annual press conference.” Three days later, on December 17, Putin returned the favor, calling Trump to thank him for an intelligence tip from the CIA that helped prevent a terrorist attack in St. Petersburg.
On January 9, 2018, The Daily Beast reported that the Trump administration had considered withdrawing troops from Eastern Europe in an effort to please Putin. According to the report, a National Security Council staffer suggested in February 2017 that the U.S. move troops away from Russia’s borders as part of a broader strategy proposal to “refram[e] our interests within the context of a new relationship with Russia.” The administration ultimately did not act on the suggestion.
Trump again breached protocol on March 20, 2018, by congratulating Putin on his victory in the Russian presidential election a few days prior, despite widespread international consensus that the election had been rigged in Putin’s favor and mounting evidence that, just days before, Russian agents had attempted to assassinate a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom. On March 20, The Washington Post reported that Trump’s briefers specifically warned him against congratulating Putin, arguing that doing so would endorse an obviously undemocratic result and legitimate Putin’s increasingly authoritarian regime; the warning reportedly included the words “DO NOT CONGRATULATE,” printed in all capital letters, on his briefing notes. Trump attempted to justify the decision in two tweets the next morning, saying, “Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing,” and that Russia “can help solve problems with North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, ISIS, Iran and even the coming Arms Race.”
On March 26, the Trump administration expelled more than 60 diplomats as part of a coordinated effort with Ukraine, Canada and EU member states. However, Trump was reportedly furious that other individual countries expelled fewer diplomats than the United States, fueling a perception in the media that the US was taking the toughest stance on Russia.
On April 15, following a chemical weapons attack from Russia-supported President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Nikki Haley, the United States’ Ambassador to the United Nations, announced that the Trump administration would announce additional sanctions against Russia. However, Trump reportedly personally reversed Haley’s public position, having a senior State Department official call the Russian embassy to reassure them that Haley’s statements were incorrect.
During the June 2018 G7 summit, Trump stated that he believed “Crimea is Russian” and suggested that Russia be readmitted to the G7. Following that summit, on July 16, 2018 Trump and Putin held a one-on-one summit in Helsinki. After meeting in private, the two leaders held a public press conference where Trump was pressed about Russia’s election interference. Trump essentially sided with Putin over his own intelligence agencies, saying, “I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” He failed to dispute Putin’s denial that the Kremlin was responsible for the election interference, and repeatedly condemned the investigation into the attack.
On July 16, 2018, Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin met one-on-one in Helsinki, Finland. In the hours leading up to the meeting, Trump blamed the previous administration and the ‘Rigged Witch Hunt’ for the recent decline in Russia-U.S. relations on Twitter. Following several hours in closed-door meetings, the two held a joint press conference during which Trump praised Putin, denied that there was collusion, and appeared to endorse Putin’s claim that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 election.
For a further in-depth look at how Putin has benefitted since Trump took office, please see our report: “Putin’s Payout: 10 Ways Trump Has Supported Putin’s Foreign Policy Agenda.”