Dispatch April 17, 2018

Trump Comes to Russia’s Rescue Again

By reversing his administration’s decision to issue new sanctions against Russia, President Trump has continued a clear pattern that would be inexplicable in any other administration: repeatedly undermining US government efforts to apply pressure on Russia.

In Trump’s case, the reason isn’t inexplicable–it’s crystal clear.

The administration’s tougher turn on Russia appears to be in spite of, not because of, Trump.

It looks increasingly like two fired senior officials–National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson–jammed through action as they headed toward the exits.

  • The Trump administration announced new Russia sanctions on McMaster’s last day in office.
  • This weekend, The Washington Post reported that Trump was “furious” following the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats as it made the US look like it was taking a tougher stance than Europe.
    • “When the expulsions were announced publicly, Trump erupted … Growing angrier, Trump insisted that his aides had misled him about the magnitude of the expulsions.”
  • Trump also fought CAATSA– Congress’s main vehicle for responding to Russian meddling–every step of the way:
    • He lobbied against the bill;
    • When faced with a veto-proof majority, the president issued a signing statement opposing the legislation;
    • In November just two months ahead of implementation deadlines, Trump publicly made Russia’s case for them, declaring in Vietnam: “You know, people don’t realize Russia has been very, very heavily sanctioned.  They were sanctioned at a very high level, and that took place very recently.”

Trump’s latest sanctions block has helped rebound Russia’s financial situation – the opposite effect of sanctions.

  • In response to Trump’s decision, Russian stocks rallied.
  • This reverses a devastating week of decline and the steepest drop for the ruble since June 2015, after US sanctions (the harshest to date) were implemented earlier this month.

It appears that as of now, the president will not be issuing any further sanctions.

  • The Washington Post reported that “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.”
  • Why it’s significant: the April 6th sanctions, which were largely seen as the first step in the right direction and having a real impact, were supposed to be the first in a series of tranches. If this is all we get, then the administration is not really implementing the law.

FBI Director James Comey has a good Trump-Putin nugget: He says the president wouldn’t even criticize Putin in private, meaning his public praise isn’t just a geopolitical calculation.

  • In a recent interview, Comey said he does not know “what’s behind” Trump’s reluctance to criticize Putin: “That mystified me even after President Trump became president, ’cause I discovered that he wouldn’t criticize him even in private … I can understand a president making a geopolitical decision that, ‘I ought not to criticize an adversary country’s leader for some reason publicly’ … But I discovered President Trump wouldn’t even do it privately, and I don’t know why that is.”
  • Remember: Trump may have personally cut the Article 5 reaffirmation from his prepared remarks at NATO last year.

We know Trump had a terrible reaction to the diplomat expulsion. What was his reaction to the April 6th sanctions? Was he even informed? Did he try to stop those ones too?