President Trump has been backed into a corner on Russia policy, facing only bad options — pressed by President Vladimir Putin on one side and, from the other, by assertive U.S. lawmakers who don’t trust Trump to stand up to the autocrat.
A near-unanimous Congress last week sent to the White House a sanctions bill that clamps down on Russia, along with Iran and North Korea, and ties Trump’s hands from offering Putin relief from existing sanctions. Putin has retaliated by demanding the United States slash its diplomatic presence by about two-thirds, or 755 people.
Trump is caught in the middle. At home, he’s under pressure to sign the sanctions bill into law and aides say he will, if only because Congress could easily override a veto. Signing the bill, however, could sink his effort to improve relations with Russia and bond with Putin.
“He clearly is uncomfortable,” said Alexander Vershbow, a U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2001 through 2005.
Here and on the world stage, Trump runs the risk of looking weak if he doesn’t react boldly to Russia’s Cold War-style expulsion of so many U.S. embassy personnel. Yet over the last few days, Trump has been silent against a hostile act that in any prior administration would have provoked a presidential response.
“The president does look a little weak certainly vis-a-vis the Congress, but at the same time there’s also the psychological unwillingness to speak out against Putin,” said Vershbow, now a fellow at the Atlantic Council. “It’s always been inexplicable. It’s become even more inexplicable.”
“Very soon, President Trump will sign legislation to strengthen and codify the United States’ sanctions against Russia,” Pence said in a speech Tuesday in Tbilisi, Georgia, during a swing through former Soviet republics bordering Russia’s western border.
Pence condemned Russia’s 10-year-long occupation of South Ossetia, an area that makes up about one-fifth of Georgian territory, pointing out that Russian tanks sit on the border of the occupied lands about 40 miles from Tbilisi, where he spoke.
“We stand here today in the gap, on a front line of freedom, a front line compromised by Russian aggression nearly a decade ago,” Pence said.
The United States “prefers a constructive relationship with Russia,” Pence said. “But the president and our Congress are unified in our message to Russia — a better relationship, the lifting of sanctions, will require Russia to reverse the actions that caused the sanctions to be imposed in the first place. And not before.”
Those actions included Russia’s annexation of Crimea, formerly part of Ukraine, and its support of pro-Russian separatists fighting in Ukraine’s east.
Trump tried to develop a friendship with Putin over the first six months of his administration, mostly by phone until the two men met extensively last month at a summit of leading nations in Hamburg, Germany. Their contacts there included a private discussion of more than two hours and a separate long chat during a dinner closing the summit.
But early on, their efforts at building rapport seemed destined to falter. Hanging over their courtship is the investigation by a Justice Department special counsel into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to win the election. Also, despite Trump’s overtures to Putin, Russia hasn’t let up on efforts to undermine democratic elections in Europe and to foil U.S. actions in Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan and Libya.
The sanctions bill that cleared Congress last week, over administration objections, is being reviewed by West Wing lawyers, Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Tuesday to explain why Trump hasn’t signed it yet.
“There is nothing holding him back. There is a review process, a legal process they are going through, and he will sign the bill and we will let you guys know,” Sanders said.
Only last month Trump was openly celebrating his new ties to Putin. Speaking to reporters on Air Force One en route to Paris in mid-July, the president said he would be open to inviting the Russian president to the White House at some point.
“If you don’t have dialogue, you have to be fools — fools,” Trump said. “It would be the easiest thing for me to say … ‘I will never speak to him,’ and everybody would love me. But I have to do what’s right,” he said.
Even as Trump has celebrated his outreach to Putin, he has argued that, as a candidate and now president, his proposed policies — to boost military spending and increase energy production more than Hillary Clinton would — should make him less popular with Moscow than his Democratic rival.
The sanctions bill, if he signs it, would codify the punishments President Obama placed on Russia in December for meddling in the 2016 election, and also impose significant restrictions on his stewardship of foreign policy.
It would prevent Trump, or any other president, from lifting those sanctions without going back to Congress for approval. The measure also would add restrictions affecting Russia’s energy sector and its intelligence and defense operations, making it harder for Moscow to export weapons.
Lawmakers initially wrote the sanctions legislation to restrict efforts by Iran and North Korea to develop nuclear-armed missiles. They subsequently included Russia out of bipartisan concern that Trump might ease existing sanctions on Russia to curry favor with Putin.
Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the conservative Heritage Foundation and a former aide to the former British prime minister, said Trump was taking the path of the previous two presidents — Obama and George W. Bush — who came into office seeking better relations with Russia, only to run into the hard reality that Putin’s interests are fundamentally at odds with America’s.
“The reality is you can’t get along with Vladimir Putin,” he said.
Gardiner said Trump was delegating Russian relations to staff, which was taking a justifiably hard line, and that “the president is moving more and more in sync” with administration experts.
He pointed to several policy positions that show a harder line toward Russia. Among them: the president’s apparent intent to sign the sanctions bill; his support for building up military power in Europe and for the existing sanctions against Moscow for its aggression toward Ukraine; the deployment of bombers to Britain; and discussion of sending defensive weapons to Ukraine.
Gardiner agreed Trump’s rhetoric had been more conciliatory toward Russia, but pointed to Pence’s tough words during his visit this week in the Baltics.
“I hope that President Trump will follow Pence’s lead on this,” he said. “Pence is saying all the things that need to be said.”
3:45 p.m.: The article was updated to include additional interviews and analysis.
The article was originally published at 11:05 a.m.