Written by Noah Weiland
President Donald Trump boasted recently that he has been “FAR tougher” on Russia than other U.S. presidents. But while the Trump administration has cracked down on Russian diplomats, government officials and oligarchs, Trump himself largely has taken a far more generous stance toward Moscow.
The contradiction has taken on new meaning in light of several recent reports, including one on an FBI counterintelligence investigation that was opened in 2017 into whether Trump had secretly acted on Russia’s behalf — one facet of the Justice Department’s investigation into Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Here are five key ways in which Trump has been at odds with his own administration over Russia in the past year.
— Pulling Troops Out of Syria and Afghanistan
Trump’s go-it-alone decision in December to pull 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria set up a dramatic clash with top officials in his administration and prompted protest resignations by Jim Mattis, the defense secretary, and Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State group.
Just weeks later, the White House national security adviser, John Bolton, directly contradicted Trump’s proposed timeline, putting conditions on the withdrawal of forces and suggesting a significant delay.
The president’s order also drew concern and criticism from some of Trump’s supporters, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey over the weekend and called for a slower withdrawal to avoid setting off a broader war. Also in December, Trump announced the removal of 7,000 troops from Afghanistan, an abrupt decision that stunned U.S. and Afghan officials.
— A Mild Response to Russia’s Seizing of Ukrainian Ships
When Russian forces took 24 Ukrainian sailors captive late last year, senior officials in the Trump administration gave the president options for responding. They included new sanctions or increasing NATO’s naval presence in the Black Sea. But Trump has not yet taken action, even as administration officials insist options are still being considered and as Europe coordinates a response.
In November, responding to the standoff, Trump canceled a meeting in Argentina with President Vladimir Putin of Russia at a forum of the Group of 20 industrialized economies. At a dinner on the sidelines of the meeting, however, Trump told Putin that a resolution was needed. Yet he has sought to blame both sides in the conflict, saying merely that he did not “like what is happening.” Russia has extended the detention of the sailors and demanded a trial on charges of border violations.
— Reluctantly Imposing Expulsions and Sanctions
Privately, Trump was irritated by his administration’s response to the 2018 poisoning of a former Russian spy living in England that the British authorities have said was carried out by Russian agents. He was initially upset that 60 Russian diplomats and intelligence officers were expelled from the United States in response to the attack, given that European nations were not expelling the same number.
Later, Trump opted against new sanctions against Russia for its support of President Bashar Assad of Syria after a chemical attack near Damascus that killed more than 40 people. Trump believed the sanctions, which had been announced by Nikki Haley, then the U.N. ambassador, were unnecessary in light of a missile strike against Syrian targets. And when the Trump administration began imposing a series of sanctions against Russian individuals and organizations in retaliation for cyberattacks and interference in the 2016 election, the president appeared out of line with his own Cabinet.
In July, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo overstated the Trump administration’s push for the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which the president signed into law in 2017 after it passed the Senate with a veto-proof majority. Trump approved it only hesitantly, first attempting to weaken it and criticizing it as “seriously flawed.”
— Deflecting Accusations of Interference in the 2016 and 2018 Elections
During a news conference in July in Helsinki, Trump said he believed Putin’s denials of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. His comments — with Putin at his side — generated a sharp backlash from Trump’s aides and congressional allies.
Those tensions flared again this month after The Washington Post and others reported that Trump attempted to hide notes from one of his meetings with Putin in 2017 from his own advisers.
Since then, the president has largely stopped expressing public confidence in Putin. Yet Trump has continued to downplay Russia’s election interference, even as the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller has repeatedly showed how extensive it was.
In October, the Justice Department brought its first charges against Russia for interfering in the 2018 midterm elections, releasing a joint statement from several of Trump’s top Cabinet officials decrying the attempts. Trump, however, was mostly silent on the indictment, and instead sought to paint himself as a protector of elections while also blaming the Obama administration for keeping quiet about election meddling during the 2016 presidential campaign.
— Defense of the NATO alliance
Senior administration officials have told The New York Times that Trump has privately, and repeatedly, said he wanted to withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which would buttress Putin’s eagerness to weaken the group.
Trump, countering the formal position of his administration, has railed against NATO. He has said that the alliance was “going out of business,” and that its member nations were not paying their fair share of costs. After visiting NATO headquarters in Brussels in July, Trump claimed inaccurately that NATO spending was increasing “because of me,” misrepresenting how the alliance functions.
Other administration officials, particularly in the military, are continuing to strengthen ties with NATO allies. Over the weekend, the U.S. Navy sent a U.S. destroyer to the Black Sea, a move that Russia quickly denounced.