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News Analysis

Crossed signals on Russia show Trump untethered from advisers

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Trump at the 2017 APEC Summit in Danang, Vietnam.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Trump at the 2017 APEC Summit in Danang, Vietnam.(Kremlin Pool Photo via Associated Press/file)

WASHINGTON — It was a jarring moment, even for an American leader whose curious attraction to Russia has often resulted in mixed messages from the United States.

Just a few hours after President Trump doused expectations of extracting any confession from President Vladimir Putin on Russia’s election meddling when they meet Monday, his own Justice Department issued a sweeping indictment of 12 Russian intelligence agents for hacking the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton presidential campaign.

The bold move, precisely the kind Trump has long resisted, demonstrated how he is almost wholly untethered from his administration when it comes to dealing with Moscow.

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Whether it is Russia’s interference in the election, its annexation of Crimea, or its intervention in Syria, Trump’s statements either undercut, or flatly contradict, those of his lieutenants.

The disconnect is so profound that it often seems Trump is pursuing one Russia policy, set on ushering in a gauzy new era of cooperation with Putin, while the rest of his administration is pursuing another, set on countering a revanchist power that the White House has labeled one of the greatest threats to US security and prosperity.

As Trump prepares to meet with Putin in Finland, diplomats and former government officials said these contradictions would undermine both the president’s efforts to cultivate a relationship with Putin and his government’s efforts to halt Russia’s campaigns to damage US democratic institutions and bully its neighbors.

“The president has hobbled his own executive branch, and the executive branch has hobbled its own president,” said Strobe Talbott, a Russia analyst who served as deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration and was president of the Brookings Institution. “It’s a three-legged race with the contestants going in opposite directions.”

This past week provided a spectacle of crossed signals on Russia. In Europe, Trump disparaged the investigation of the special counsel, Robert Mueller, into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, while in Washington, the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, somberly announced the latest round of indictments in the case.

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“I call it the ‘rigged witch hunt,’ ” Trump said, as Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain looked on. “I think that really hurts our country and it really hurts our relationship with Russia.”

A few hours later, Trump’s director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, compared the danger of Russian cyberattacks to the stream of terrorist threats against the United States before Sept. 11, 2001. He said Putin should be held responsible for them.

In his hawkishness toward Moscow, Coats lines up with other members of Trump’s national security team, from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The national security adviser, John Bolton, has publicly encouraged Trump to keep pressing Russia on election meddling, noting that in a preparatory meeting with him, Putin denied Russian state involvement, but not any Russian involvement at all.

The White House enshrined a tough approach to Russia in its national security strategy, which was written under the direction of Bolton’s predecessor, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, who spoke regularly about the threat Moscow posed to US institutions.

The document says Russia and China “are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to enlarge their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.”

The administration has imposed sanctions on 213 Russian-related targets, including close associates of Putin, since January 2017, as punishment for Russia’s cyberattacks and its predatory behavior in Ukraine.

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The State Department shut down the Russian Consulate in San Francisco after Russia struck back against sanctions. And it expelled 60 Russian diplomats to retaliate for Russia’s poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil.

In some respects, it has gone further than the Obama administration.

In December 2017, the White House approved the sale of lethal defensive weapons to the Ukrainian military for its battle against Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine — a step former president Barack Obama resisted because he feared it would escalate the confrontation with Russia.

Trump does not hesitate to take credit for the hard line toward Russia. But he does so in perfunctory language, rarely turning his fire on Putin himself and instead making unfavorable comparisons to his predecessor, Obama.

“President Obama failed very badly with Crimea,” Trump said Friday when asked about Russia’s annexation. “This was an Obama disaster. And I think if I were president then, he would not have taken over Crimea.”

On Saturday, while at his golf club in Scotland, Trump blamed Obama for not acting against Russia’s election interference.

But Trump has also consistently played down Russia’s role in the election, or his obligation to prevent such disruption from happening again.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry, echoing Trump’s claim of a “deep state” conspiracy behind the special counsel inquiry, said Friday that political forces in the United States that are opposed to a rapprochement had timed the release of the new indictments to “spoil the atmosphere” before the summit.

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Officials in the administration argue that its policies give Trump leverage over Putin. The Russian leader, they said, desperately wants to ease the pressure of sanctions, on his economy, and his cronies. Trump’s promise to modernize the United States’ nuclear arsenal is putting pressure on Putin to seek an arms control treaty to replace New Start treaty.