Monday, April 16, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He walked back sanctions against Russia--again.

Yesterday, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, who is in practice one of the United States' few remaining senior diplomats, announced on several political talk shows that the US would impose more economic sanctions on Russia as a result of its backing of the Syrian government. 

Today, Trump put those sanctions on hold indefinitely. He blamed Haley's "misstatement," but White House officials said privately that the idea of imposing more sanctions "upset" Trump, and that he was "not yet comfortable executing them."

Trump's entire presidency has been clouded by the fact that Russia actively intervened to secure his election, possibly with his or his handlers' cooperation. Recently, he has dialed back his open admiration for Vladimir Putin, and made an effort to at least talk tough where Russia is concerned. Mostly, this has taken the form of a few tweets acknowledging the fact that Russia has always been on the side of the Assad regime. He also reluctantly joined with the United States' allies in expelling Russian diplomatic staff over the Putin regime's attempted assassination of ex-Russian defectors. (He later privately raged to staffers that the number of expelled Russians came off as too aggressive.)

But sanctions, which can strike directly at Putin's personal financial infrastructure as well as hurt the shaky Russian economy, are a deadly serious matter for Russia--in ways that tweets are not.

Today's action marks at least the third time Trump has intervened on Putin's behalf where sanctions are concerned. In January he refused to enforce sanctions passed virtually unanimously by Congress to punish Russia for its interference in the 2016 election. During the transition period, as president-elect, Trump publicly sided with the "very smart" Putin against the Obama administration's first round of punitive sanctions for that attack.

What is the problem with this?

  • It's bad if a president can't bring himself to take action against a hostile foreign power.
  • It's worse if there's no obvious reason why he can't, other than that he is somehow beholden to them.
  • When an administration makes threats that its president is then unwilling or unable to carry out, it weakens the United States.