The Russians were confused. They were not alone.
On Wednesday, the Trump administration said it would impose sanctions later this month against Russia in retaliation for the attempted assassination of a former Russian spy, now a British citizen, and his daughter, in England last spring with an illegal nerve agent.
The sanctions were announced 3 1/2 weeks after President Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki and blamed U.S. policies for the nosedive in relations with Moscow. Trump also cast doubt on the U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election, citing Putin’s denial instead.
Once again, Trump pronouncements, from national security to international trade, appeared at odds with his own administration’s policy in practice. Nowhere is the disconnect more glaring than in foreign policy, where the twists and turns have bewildered world leaders, from NATO allies to autocrats in China and the Middle East.
“Usually the U.S. government has one policy, enunciated by the president, and all the advisors work to enact it,” said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian and former director of the Richard Nixon Library. “This essentially is a U.S. government with two policies.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he added.
Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo has appeared more adept at balancing the contradictions than his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, whom Trump fired in March. But it isn’t always easy.
Pompeo flew to Asia this month, for example, to promote one of the administration’s policy visions: a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region of trade and markets stretching from California to Japan, India and Australia.
But in high-level meetings in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, Pompeo repeatedly had to reassure regional officials worried about a different vision: Trump’s trade tariffs against China, Korea, Canada and other countries, and his willingness to engage in a potentially ruinous trade war.
Speaking to reporters as he flew back to Washington, Pompeo rebuffed the notion that Trump’s trade policy had tied his hands. He insisted that he and the president agreed on the need for tough action to create open markets, and that Trump didn’t want a trade war.
“That’s what I told every one of my counterparts,” Pompeo added, acknowledging that the question had dogged him at each stop.
Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 25, Pompeo was repeatedly assailed for the administration’s handling of talks with Russia and North Korea, and other major foreign policy initiatives.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who chairs the committee, criticized Trump for failing to disclose any agreements he had reached in two hours of private talks with Putin, for undermining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and for his attacks on other U.S. allies.
“You come before a group of senators today who are filled with serious doubts about this White House and its conduct of American foreign policy,” Mr. Corker said. “From where we sit, it appears that in a ready-fire-aim fashion, the White House is waking up every morning making it up as they go.”
In the testy hearing, Pompeo was forced to contradict Trump’s claim that North Korea was “no longer a nuclear threat” thanks to his summit in Singapore with Kim Jong Un. Pompeo acknowledged that Pyongyang is still producing fuel for nuclear bombs and has not shown any sign of giving up its arsenal.
On Russia, Pompeo repeated U.S. policy that Washington views Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea as illegal and will not ease sanctions on Russia until the peninsula is returned to Ukraine.
Trump has voiced less concern, musing in June that Crimea may as well be Russian because people there speak Russian. He also said Russia should be readmitted to the Group of 7 industrialized nations, although it was expelled in 2014 because of its military operations in Ukraine.
The administration has taken tough measures against Russia, including the expulsion of dozens of Russian diplomats in retaliation for Moscow’s intervention in the 2016 presidential race. Prodded by Congress, it also has imposed several packages of sanctions.
Trump has never condemned Putin, however, and before the two met in Helsinki, Trump blamed the poor relations on “many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity,” not on Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, its attempts to hack U.S. election facilities, the nerve gas attack in England or other alleged misdeeds.
“The Russians may be as confused as the rest of the world about official U.S. … policy,” Daniel Fried, a 40-year veteran of the State Department, said last week at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. “President Trump says one thing and his administration another.”
Indeed, Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned Friday that the U.S. sanctions could be considered “a declaration of economic war.”
“And it would be necessary, it would be needed to react to this war economically, politically, or, if needed, by other means. And our American friends need to understand this,” he added.
Allies also have scrambled to fathom what Trump wants, and whether Pompeo and other senior aides speak on his behalf. Some find a workaround, like Mexico, which deals directly with Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, thanks to his personal relationship with Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray.
At the same time, Trump loyalists across the government have managed to translate his rhetoric to policy. Few in the administration now speak of climate change, which Trump has called a hoax, or human rights abuses, which Trump has largely ignored — except in Venezuela and Iran, which he considers adversaries.
Still, U.S. officials sometimes sound like they work for a different administration. So it seemed, at least, when the U.S. ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, and the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman Jr., briefed reporters before the July 11 NATO summit in Brussels.
They extolled the importance of strength and unity in the 29-nation military alliance and its bedrock commitment to mutual defense.
Days later, Hutchison and Huntsman appeared distressed as Trump railed against German Chancellor Angela Merkel, calling Germany a “captive of Russia” for its purchase of natural gas, and denounced other allies as “delinquent” in defense spending.
His provocative insults, false claims and broad theatrics roiled the gathering and overshadowed several concrete achievements — including an agreement to reinforce its deterrence and defense capabilities to counter Russian aggression.