Listening to President Donald Trump, he sounds like a heretic inside his own government: the lone official prepared to accept that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trustworthy and sincere.
Nikki Haley, the president’s former ambassador to the United Nations, last week called Putin an enemy. National Security Adviser John Bolton has labeled Putin a liar. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is meeting with Putin today in Sochi, Russia, recently accused Putin’s government of undermining Venezuela’s sovereignty.
Then there’s Trump, who seems hell-bent on turning the former KGB operative into a personal friend. In a phone call earlier this month, the pair amiably chewed over the finding from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report that the Trump campaign didn’t conspire with Russia during the 2016 election. In Trump’s telling, Putin “smiled” while confiding that the inquiry “started off as a mountain and it ended up being a mouse”—just a couple of intimates savoring Trump’s vindication.
It’s a mystery that has mushroomed since the 2016 campaign: What is the root of Trump’s deference toward Putin? Does the Russian leader have some sort of unseen hold over the 45th president? “I don’t know the answer to that,” former FBI Director James Comey, who was fired by Trump in 2017, said last week at a CNN town hall.
But Trump might be motivated by something else, his allies and administration officials suggest. They see Trump following a “good-cop, bad-cop” playbook that is meant to sustain a necessary dialogue with the leader of a nuclear-armed adversary. Leave it to Bolton, Pompeo, and others to deliver the harsh message, the argument goes. They will, and they have. Trump, meanwhile, will see to it that relations at the top stay cordial.
However, this interpretation assumes that Trump is operating not only with the best intentions, but also with a coherent strategy that belies his often improvisational, erratic style. And even if that were the case, such an approach has serious downsides: Trump winds up undercutting senior officials who are warning of dire threats that Russia poses to U.S. interests. Foreign leaders are never sure who speaks for the U.S. government. And there’s a real chance that Trump’s overtures will boomerang. Some experts predict that Putin, hardly a naif on the world stage, will use Trump’s evident desire for better relations to wrest concessions from the White House. All of which means that Pompeo is walking straight into one of the central contradictions of the Trump presidency: the gap between Trump’s words and the government’s deeds.
“The notion that you’re going to say nice things about [Putin] and he is going to change his ways, I don’t see any evidence that’s ever worked,” says Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia during Barack Obama’s administration.
Administration officials say that perhaps, through personal diplomacy, Trump can coax Putin to meet U.S. goals, including dropping support for Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela and helping persuade North Korea to give up nuclear weapons. Still, some who’ve worked at the top levels of the administration concede that they’ve been baffled by Trump’s moves in the foreign-policy arena. How he gets his information isn’t always clear. Some have noted that Trump comes to briefings with ideas that seem to have sprung from private phone conversations with “people who want him to adopt a viewpoint that is sympathetic to Russia,” said one person familiar with the matter.
Trump has avoided one-on-one clashes with Putin, most recently when he failed to tell the Russian leader during their phone call that he must not interfere in the 2020 election. That wasn’t out of character. Trump’s habit has been to refuse to condemn Putin for election interference, most famously at a joint press conference in Helsinki over the summer. “The president keeps coming back to the point that if he’s not engaging, you can be sure there’s going to be estrangement [with leaders] at the very upper level,” said an administration official, who like others we spoke with requested anonymity to talk more freely about internal deliberations. “So he is constantly of the opinion that you have to have a good relationship at the top.”
“He is a salesman,” said former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Trump-campaign supporter, last week at a conference in Las Vegas. “He is, at the core, a salesman who uses hyperbole to try to convince people of his position.”
Friendly overtures toward Putin aren’t new for an American president, a reality that Trump’s defenders periodically bring up. Yet Trump clearly hasn’t learned a key lesson from his predecessors: Others who courted the Russian leadership had little to show for it. Five months after taking office, former President George W. Bush met Putin at a summit in Slovenia and said later that he had gotten “a sense of his soul.”
“I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy,” Bush said. Yet relations began to sour following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, over Russian objections, and deteriorated further after Russia’s 2008 incursion into Georgia.
Hillary Clinton, Obama’s secretary of state, presented her Russian counterpart with a red “reset” button in 2009 in hopes of forging better ties. (Her aides got the translation wrong—the button actually said “overcharged” in Russian, an omen for the ill-fated “reset.”) When Clinton left the job in 2013, she sent Obama a letter warning that relations with Russia were poised to get worse.
Trump entered office in a political environment that made direct dealings with Putin risky. In the shadow of Mueller’s investigation, any contact between Trump and Putin was bound to be viewed with suspicion. Now that Mueller has finished his report and established no conspiracy between Russia and Trump-campaign officials, Trump has a freer hand to engage Putin, Trump administration officials say. Trump announced on Monday that he will meet with Putin next month at the G20 summit meeting in Japan. In the meantime, Pompeo is set to meet Putin in his first visit to Russia. Asked on Monday what he wants Pompeo to tell Putin, the president said, “The message is that there has never been anybody so tough on Russia. But at the same time, we’re going to end up getting along with Russia.”
In practice, Trump’s government has been tougher on the country than his rhetoric would suggest. How the United States treats Russia more closely tracks the messages coming from Trump’s hawkish advisers. The administration, for example, has levied repeated rounds of sanctions against Russian entities or individuals, sometimes after being pushed by Congress. Those sanctions have covered cyberattacks, weapons proliferation, human-rights abuses, and aggression in Ukraine. And in some respects, the Trump administration has gone further to confront Russia than the Obama administration did.
For instance, the Trump administration approved the largest-ever sale of lethal weaponry to Ukraine since Russia’s 2014 incursion there, a step the Obama White House was reluctant to take. Somewhat incongruously for a president who has frequently questioned the value of NATO, his administration has overseen the deployment of thousands more U.S. troops to bolster the alliance’s eastern flank, expanding a policy Obama first laid out. And the administration expelled some 60 Russian diplomats from the United States last March in a coordinated action with European partners, after accusing the Russians of poisoning a former Russian intelligence agent with a nerve agent in the United Kingdom. (Trump himself, however, was reportedly unhappy about the number.) In February, Trump withdrew from an arms-control treaty with Russia, citing repeated Russian violations.
“I think people misunderstand how strong this administration has been against Russia,” Haley said last week, at the same conference where Christie spoke. “I’ve seen it. They put sanctions on Russia. They expelled diplomats that were spies. [Trump] gave arms to Ukraine, which infuriated Russia. We also saw the fact that we increased our energy production, which hurts Russia. We are strengthening our military, which Russia hates. I think the reason people think that he’s not hard on Russia is maybe because of his tone.”
Haley was defending the administration, but she hit on an important problem. Trump’s tone is inescapable, and it continues to feed doubts about his commitment to hold Russia to account. McFaul noted to us the fact that the Trump administration has continued or even intensified some of Obama’s Russia policies in the areas of sanctions, strengthening NATO, and aiding Ukraine. “The problem,” McFaul said, “is that in all three of those dimensions, it’s not clear to me that President Trump supports any of them.” In yet another example of Trump undercutting his administration’s overall strategy, Trump has built up forces in eastern Europe and sanctioned Russia over its annexation of Crimea, but he’s also declined to answer whether he would recognize the annexation, and reportedly pointed out that the Ukrainian peninsula’s residents speak Russian.
Another consideration: Flattering Putin is likely to backfire, McFaul said. “With a guy like Putin, there’s going to be a price for good relationships,” he said. “He’s going to say to Trump, ‘You know what? I want to be your friend. I want a closer relationship between the U.S. and Russia. And you know what we need to do to get that? You need to lift sanctions.’ By defining good relations as the objective, it can lead to these detrimental outcomes.”
The risk of diminishing advisers and confusing foreign officials was clear from the Trump-Putin phone call on May 3. Trump would later tell reporters that Putin had assured him that Russia “is not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela”—an assertion that contradicted Pompeo’s insistence that Russia has indeed intervened and is dictating Maduro’s moves.
“To have it happen so consistently where the secretary of state, or secretary of defense, or the national security adviser go out and take a principled position and try to drive that home and is undercut by the president, that makes the government ineffective,” says Nicholas Burns, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a former undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Bush administration. “And if you’re the president, it makes him ineffective because it confuses the rest of the world about your true intentions.”
As Pompeo sits down with Putin in Sochi, he has vowed to raise issues including election interference, even as he declared in remarks with his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on Tuesday, “I’m here today because President Trump is committed to furthering this relationship.” Looming over the meeting, though, is Trump, whose conciliatory rhetoric could complicate Pompeo’s chances for a breakthrough. “People wonder, Is the president feckless; is he undisciplined; does he mean what he says? If he’s soft with Putin, is that actually American policy?” Burns asked. “Because Pompeo and Bolton have been appropriately tough. So it really hurts the president in the final analysis.”