Since Trump took office, the U.S. has sanctioned more than 200 Russian individuals and entities, expelled 60 Russian diplomats, closed the Russian consulate in Seattle, approved weapons sales to Ukraine, and significantly increased spending on European defense meant to deter Russia. And despite Trump’s lambasting of European allies for not spending more on defense at last week’s NATO summit in Brussels, the U.S. signed the joint NATO communique, which condemned Russia for its annexation of Crimea, its alleged nerve-agent attack in the United Kingdom, and other acts of aggression against European countries. In 2017, the U.S. Senate passed legislation that prevents the president from unilaterally removing sanctions on Russia without Congress’s consent. The law also grants a broad mandate to the administration for sanctioning Russian companies and Putin’s cronies. Oddly, the president himself has appointed advisers, most notably Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National-Security Adviser John Bolton, who are known for their hawkish views on Russia.
In stark contrast to the administration’s policies, however, Trump’s own views on Russia don’t seem to have shifted—something Trump made clear in the lead-up to the Helsinki meeting. Trump suggested that he would be open to recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea because “everyone there speaks Russian.” He called for Russia to be readmitted to the G7. At a rally in Montana earlier this month, Trump said that Putin is “fine.” There is no shortage of evidence that despite occasional lip service to being tougher on Russia than Obama, Trump’s affinity for Putin in particular has remained unshakeable. Indeed, Trump has likely grown increasingly impatient with the constraints his advisers, Congress, and the unfolding special-counsel investigation have placed on his ability to pursue that elusive U.S.-Russia friendship. He undoubtedly felt frustrated that he was prevented from meeting with Putin earlier in his presidency and instead had to seek out opportunities to talk with Putin one-on-one on the sidelines of other meetings (which he did twice, in Germany and Vietnam). These frustrations likely built up when he went against his advisers and called to congratulate Putin on his sham election victory in March. It was during that call that Trump finally invited Putin for a tete-a-tete and set the wheels in motion for Helsinki.
After all the anticipation, the Helsinki meeting was an opportunity for Trump to try to close the gap between his desires and his administration’s policy. And, flying high from what Trump saw as a successful meeting with Kim Jong Un last month—a meeting he also accepted against the recommendation of his advisers—he could well have succeeded. Instead, with his dismal performance, Trump shot himself in the foot. Even some of his usual supporters seemed to have turned on him. Newt Gingrich, usually a staunch defender of the president, tweeted that Trump made “the most serious mistake of his presidency,” which “must be corrected—immediately.”