“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.
Read: Was Obama too soft on Russia?
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.