President Trump has put the brakes on new Russia sanctions designed to punish the Putin regime for its support of Syrian chemical weapons attacks. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley announced the sanctions on Sunday on CBS' “Face the Nation.”
“You will see that Russian sanctions will be coming down,” Haley said, adding that Treasury Secretary Mnuchin “will be announcing those on Monday, if he hasn't already, and they will go directly to any sort of companies that were dealing with equipment related to Assad and chemical weapons use.”
Not so fast, said the White House.
The Washington Post reported on Monday that President Trump was “upset” with the sanctions roll out because he was “not yet comfortable” with them and had not given final approval. After Haley's comments on television, the Trump Administration notified the Russian Embassy that no new sanctions were coming per a statement by a Russian Foreign Ministry official.
The confusion is characteristic of the Trump White House in which policy statements often seem to be made on a whim without the prior knowledge of senior advisors. For example, last month's announcement of tariffs on steel and aluminum caught many White House officials by surprise as did his announcement that the US embassy in Israel would be relocated to Jerusalem.
There were conflicting reports over whether Haley made her statement before the sanctions were authorized or whether the president changed his mind about sanctions that were previously agreed upon. One source told the Post that Haley made “an error that needs to be mopped up” while others say that Haley is very disciplined and cautious and consults with the president over policy before making public statements. Haley has not addressed the comment since her appearance.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “We are considering additional sanctions on Russia and a decision will be made in the near future.” Other White House officials characterized the sanctions as being in a “holding pattern.”
The debate over new sanctions comes at a time when there are several problem areas in US-Russian relations. In addition to the ongoing investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 elections, there is tension over Russia's role in the Syrian civil war and Russian aggression in the Ukraine. Further, Russian hackers have been implicated by US intelligence officials in cyberattacks on the US power grid.
President Trump has a history of slow-walking sanctions on Russia. A near-unanimous Congress passed sanctions on Russia in 2017, but the Trump Administration has still not implemented them. A State Department spokesman said in January 2018, “Sanctions on specific entities or individuals will not need to be imposed because the legislation is, in fact, serving as a deterrent.” The Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) allows President Trump to postpone the implementation of sanctions if he judges that the sanction targets are reducing their involvement with Russian defense and intelligence organizations. The Trump Administration did impose sanctions on 21 individuals under four Executive Orders.
The Trump Administration has also approved weapons sales to Ukraine. Since approving lethal aid to help Ukraine fend of Russian-backed insurgents, the US has delivered Javelin anti-tank missiles and launchers to the beleaguered nation even though the call for arming Ukraine was removed from the 2016 Republican platform.
In March, the US and its allies expelled scores of Russian diplomats to protest the murder of a former Russian intelligence officer in Britain. The Washington Post reported that Trump was reluctant to expel the Russians, but finally agreed on the condition that “We’re not taking the lead. We’re matching [the number of diplomats expelled by Britain, France and Germany].” The paper reported that Trump was furious when the US expelled more Russians than the other countries.
The conflict in the White House underscores the tension between President Trump, the outsider, and his advisors, many of whom are longtime Republicans with traditional conservative national security views. The White House staff seems to be pushing for a more aggressive Russia policy while Trump, the Russophile and admirer of Vladimir Putin, seems to be resisting. Advisors like Haley put their powers of persuasion to the test, but President Trump makes the final call.
Originally published on The Resurgent