From the closing days of 2017 until very recently, President Trump and his administration enacted a series of policy changes and statements that treated Vladimir Putin and the Russian government as the hostile adversary that it self-evidently is. Each step was another piece of counter-evidence to the notion that Trump is a pawn of Putin or a blindly naïve Russophile.
In December, Trump approved providing Ukraine with “enhanced defensive capabilities” to protect itself against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
At the end of March, the Trump administration ordered the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats the U.S. identified as intelligence agents and the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle.
Finally, on April 8, Trump finally poked at Putin by name in a series of tweets: “Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria. Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world. President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price… ….to pay. Open area immediately for medical help and verification. Another humanitarian disaster for no reason whatsoever. SICK!” On April 11, he added, “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”
Then Trump launched airstrikes against Putin’s ally Assad a second time, this time a much larger assault.
Add it up, and you would think the notion of Trump is some sort of Russian-controlled Manchurian candidate or Putin fan is dead and buried, right?
Eh, not quite. The Washington Post reports, citing unnamed sources, that Trump was furious when the diplomatic expulsions were announced, contending that his aides had misled him on the number of diplomats that America’s European allies would be expelling. Trump congratulated Putin on his election “victory” and invited Putin to the White House. And even after criticizing Putin on Twitter, Trump blamed tensions with Russia his domestic political rivals: “Much of the bad blood with Russia is caused by the Fake & Corrupt Russia Investigation, headed up by the all Democrat loyalists, or people that worked for Obama. Mueller is most conflicted of all (except Rosenstein who signed FISA & Comey letter). No Collusion, so they go crazy!”
Perhaps most consequentially, this week Trump essentially canceled an announcement by the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, that the administration would place sanctions on Russian companies found to be assisting Syria’s chemical-weapons program.
What does it mean? A true Russian pawn or blackmail victim wouldn’t arm the Ukrainians, enact the sanctions, expel the diplomats, or criticize Putin. But Trump clearly still is reluctant to take too many actions that antagonize Moscow, and he believes he’s just one good charm offensive from defusing all tensions between the United States and Russia.
In short, the president is conflicted and erratic when it comes to Russia — which is not all that different than his shifting positions on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the assault-weapons ban, concealed-carry reciprocity, a veto for the omnibus spending bill, and immediately withdrawing all U.S. forces from Syria.
The good news is we don’t have a Russian pawn as president. The bad news is we have a president whose perspective is shaped by who he talked to last, what he saw on television that morning, and what mood he’s in.