There were mixed signals this past weekend from the Trump administration as a new round of sanctions on Russia made its way through Congress. But if the president and his chaotic administration know what’s good for them, they’ll go along with Republicans who are seeking to bail them out of trouble whether they like it or not.
That’s a big “if,” though.
No one can say just what Trump will do about the bill. New White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told one Sunday-morning show that “we support where the legislation is now,” appearing to indicate President Trump would sign the new sanctions bill, which seeks to punish Russia for its attempts to intervene in the 2016 presidential campaign and was passed by near-unanimous votes in both chambers of Congress.
But at the same time, Huckabee Sanders’s new boss, White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, was telling CNN’s Jake Tapper that the president had yet to make a decision on signing the bill. More ominously, he claimed to be skeptical about the intelligence consensus that Russia attempted to meddle in the 2016 campaign. When Tapper pushed back, Scaramucci cited an anonymous source who cast doubt on Russian culpability. When pressed to name the source, he confessed that it was no less than the president himself. At that point, it was clear that a common-sense approach to the issue wasn’t necessarily going to win out over the president’s impulsiveness and his many insecurities. (By Tuesday, Sanders sounded more equivocal about the president’s intentions, announcing that the White House would wait to see the final text of the bill before making a decision.)
As the legislation heads back to the Senate for final approval, it’s possible that Trump is still hoping to be saved from the indignity of signing a law that rebukes his efforts to reshape U.S. policy toward Russia while severely limiting his ability to ease American pressure on the Kremlin. But it would be a grave political mistake to veto the bill.
Like all of his predecessors, Trump doesn’t like the idea of being overridden by Congress as he attempts to carry out his diplomatic agenda. But his open advocacy for a softer line on Russia has cost him the benefit of the doubt that presidents almost always get from Congress on foreign-policy matters.
The idea that Russia is a geostrategic foe of the U.S. was controversial in 2012, when President Obama mocked Mitt Romney’s concerns about Moscow. But now that their party’s leader is no longer the one pushing for a “reset” of relations or making hot-mic promises about showing more flexibility in his second term to “Vladimir,” Democrats have joined with Republicans in wanting to get tough on the Putin regime. That has created a unique consensus on Capitol Hill in which both parties are committed to countering Russian aggression against Ukraine and other former Soviet republics while making Putin pay for his misbehavior in 2016.
Trump still isn’t able to separate his rage at the ongoing ‘collusion’ brouhaha from his political interests.
What has Trump got to lose by going along with sanctions? In terms of policy objectives, the answer is nothing at all. He has basically handed Syria over to Russia and Iran in the hope that Moscow will finally take meaningful steps to fight ISIS, but Russia’s commitment to the preservation of the Assad regime means that isn’t going to happen. If he is serious about restraining further Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, the sanctions will only make his hand stronger.
But Trump still isn’t able to separate his rage at the ongoing “collusion” brouhaha from his political interests. That’s what fuels the continuing presidential tweet-storms on the subject. It’s also what is pushing his ongoing denial of Russian involvement in the hacking and his consideration of a veto of the sanctions bill, which would almost certainly be overridden by Congress.
It’s painfully obvious that there is no one — not even his family — who can sit Trump down and get him to stop shooting himself in the foot. But even the president must understand that the humiliation of having a veto overridden in this fashion would be more than a momentary setback; it would be seen, fairly or not, as more circumstantial evidence that he has somehow been compromised by Russia.
That perception would, in turn, further encourage Democrats to be the party of impeachment. It would also erode whatever remaining loyalty congressional Republicans have toward the president. Though Trump may not think much of them, he needs to understand that virtually no one at the other end of Capitol Hill is going to provide cover for a stand on Russia that makes neither political nor policy sense. Moreover, he’s going to need these same members to fend off the effort to tie him to collusion, and to get legislation passed.
Yet, again, there’s no guarantee that Trump will do the smart thing here. In any other administration of either party, such a veto would be unimaginable. But with this president, you should never bet on basic political calculus prevailing over mindless pique.