President Donald Trump and his top diplomats continued pivoting away from Russia on Wednesday amid federal and congressional investigations into possible ties between his associates and the Kremlin.
The new tone could be music to the ears of hawkish members of the president’s own political party.
Trump sent several signals toward Russia while standing alongside the secretary general of NATO, a military alliance established to guard against Russian aggression in eastern Europe. The scene provided the U.S. president a powerful bit of symbolism to further his administration’s efforts over the last week to create some distance with Russia.
The White House wasted little time after Trump ordered U.S. Navy ships to fire nearly five dozen Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base when it concluded the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad conducted a sarin gas attack that killed dozens of its citizens. Trump has said he was moved to action by images of babies killed in Assad’s attack — days after his team said Assad could remain in power.
In a stunning change from his campaign trail rhetoric, Trump said U.S. relations with Russia could have recently hit an “all-time low” as the two world powers clash over the gas attack in Syria. The president declared he would make up his mind on Putin “over time,” acknowledging his relationship with the former KGB agent “may be just the opposite” of what he promised as a candidate.
A senior administration official later criticized Russia’s “destabilizing behavior” in Syria and elsewhere, adding it is likely time for Putin to conduct a “recalculation” of his interests there.
What’s more, Trump and his top White House aides are now cozying up to Chinese President Xi Jinping. Candidate Trump hammered Xi daily on the campaign trail. That leaves Trump, 83 days into his presidency at odds with the world leader with whom he promised to improve relations (Putin) and closer to the one with whom he threatened to take a harder line (Xi).
That’s because, as the senior administration official put it, the new president is “not doctrinal” about foreign policy issues. But that also means, as he did last week with Syria, his opinion and approach could seemingly change on a dime.
The president’s comments and those of the senior official came a day after senior administration officials bluntly accused the Kremlin of trying to provide Assad cover for the gas attack. “I think it’s clear that the Russians are trying to cover up what happened there,” a senior administration official said.
And while the Trump administration has not clearly stated any conclusion that the Kremlin or its military commanders knew about plans to carry out the attack beforehand, senior officials are raising pointed questions to that end.
“Considering the fact that there were Russian forces co-located with Syrian forces at the Shayrat airfield, in addition to many other installations … we do think that it is a question worth asking the Russians about how is it possible that their forces were co-located with the Syrian forces that planned, prepared, and carried out this chemical weapons attack at the same installation, and did not have foreknowledge,” the senior administration official told reporters Tuesday.
On Monday, Eric Trump, the president’s 33-year-old son, told The Daily Telegraph that if illicit ties between his father’s campaign and Moscow existed, Thursday night’s strikes would not have occurred. “If there was anything that [the strike on] Syria did, it was to validate the fact that there is no Russia tie,” he said.
The White House spent much of the week after Trump’s first air strike taking a much tougher tone toward Russia. The timing of the attack was in response to the reported actions by the Syrian government, but the Trump administration has missed few opportunities to use the missile strike as a way of changing the narrative about its potential ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday, after Putin made him wait before a private meeting, told reporters in Moscow that there is a “low level of trust” between the two countries that dates to the Obama administration but has not improved since the Trump team took over.
Notably, Tillerson ticked off a brief list of issues on which Washington and Moscow agree. Some were things Trump talked about on the campaign trail for months, arguing the two world powers should have warmer relations. The list was noticeably short.
The former Exxon Mobil executive minced few words when he said there are a “bigger range” of things on which the two governments disagree. He bemoaned a “steady degradation” in U.S.-Russia relations. He also described the Assad government’s ordering of the gas attack as already confirmed, prompting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to respond that his government has not yet been presented with any facts showing that, and blame “media hysteria” for perpetuating what Moscow contends has not been proved.
As Democratic lawmakers and pundits continue to question whether nefarious ties existed between the Trump campaign and Russia, Tillerson and other top administration officials in the last seven days have sketched a much different portrait.
Senior aides, in a series of television interviews since the Syria strike, have sent not-so-subtle messages toward Moscow.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer this week called Russia “isolated” in its continued support for the Assad government — and other American adversaries.
“They have aligned themselves with North Korea, Syria, Iran,” Spicer said. “That’s not exactly a group of countries that you’re looking to hang out with.
“Russia is on an island when it comes to its support of Syria or its lack of, frankly, acknowledgment of what happened. ... The actions of Syria are reprehensible,” he said. “And I think that Russia has been party to several international agreements that Syria is not holding up to — in fact, that Russia needs to hold themselves up to.”
That came days after Trump’s hand-picked ambassador to the United Nations sent a hawkish warning to Russia.
“I hope that what Iran sees, and Syria sees, and Russia sees,” Nikki Haley told CNN in an interview that aired Sunday, “is that this is a president that’s not afraid to act.”
The tougher tone will likely please members of both parties on Capitol Hill, including influential Republicans.
“Vladimir Putin is a war criminal who is assisting another war criminal in killing his own people, in gassing innocents,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said last week. “And for me, a statement is not enough. … There needs to be a level of outrage. It needs to become a priority.”
The Trump administration’s harder line toward Moscow also comes just as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan is set to lead a bipartisan congressional delegation to Europe to confer with NATO allies. Ryan’s office said the purpose of his trip is “strengthening economic and security ties with our NATO partners.”