There is a certain pattern to foreign-policy announcements from the Trump administration: A senior official foreshadows a new, tough announcement that’s widely applauded or criticized, depending on the policy. Later, it emerges that the president might actually want to do something else.
The latest example: a fresh round of sanctions against Russia for its role in enabling the recent Syrian chemical-weapons attack, specifically against companies that the U.S. says have facilitated Syria’s chemical-weapons program. The past few days have seen the UN ambassador announce new sanctions, only to be undercut 24 hours later, in two different ways, by the White House—with the press secretary saying Trump was still considering them, and an anonymous official saying he has in fact decided against them. The messaging confusion is not unusual for this White House, but it is also telling about the perilously complicated Syrian battlefield and the risks of escalation with the actors involved, Russia key among them.
On Sunday, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told CBS’s Face the Nation that “Russian sanctions will be coming down” on Monday, adding Steve Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, would announce them. She said the sanctions would target Russian “companies that were dealing with equipment related to Assad and chemical weapons use.” The measure was meant to complement the U.S.-led airstrikes last Friday against Syrian facilities tied to its chemical-weapons program. But on Monday, the administration was saying something else. The Washington Post cited several anonymous officials as saying Trump was not comfortable executing the plan yet—and the newspaper described the strategy as being in a “holding pattern” while Trump considered. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said later in a statement: “We are considering additional sanctions on Russia and a decision will be made in the near future.” But The New York Times later quoted an unnamed official as saying the president had decided against moving forward with the measures. In the words of the Times, Trump decided they were “unnecessary” since Moscow had responded to the U.S.-led strikes in Syria merely with “bluster.”