President Trump on Monday put the brakes on a preliminary plan to impose additional economic sanctions on Russia, walking back a Sunday announcement by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley that the Kremlin had swiftly denounced as “international economic raiding.” . . . But Trump conferred with his national security advisers later Sunday and told them he was upset the sanctions were being officially rolled out because he was not yet comfortable executing them, according to several people familiar with the plan.
There are several key points to underscore.
First, this is not the first time Haley has been out over her skis, as they say. She has, for example, declared that we would sit down with North Korea only after it gave up its nukes. That hard-line position was swatted down by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s press secretary. “No change,” was the response when I asked if Haley was setting out a different, tougher position. Likewise, Haley has been more aggressive than Defense Secretary Jim Mattis when it comes to nixing the Iran nuclear deal. Her views are not the problem; she’s within the mainstream of the GOP, albeit on the hawkish end of the spectrum, but she is not secretary of state. She isn’t supposed to make or even announce new policies. If she doesn’t understand that, she shouldn’t go on the Sunday shows.
Second, we again have evidence of Trump riding to Moscow’s rescue. His apparent decision (who knows if it will last?) that no other sanctions will be forthcoming should worry his apologists who have been insisting he’s a real tough guy when it comes to Russia. To the contrary, he appears to be the only one in the administration who thinks Russia should be spared further economic pain. Remember that Congress last year passed robust sanction authority by a near-unanimous vote? Trump simply does not want to use it. (“The Post reports: “Administration officials said Monday it was unlikely Trump would approve any additional sanctions without another triggering event by Russia, describing the strategy as being in a holding pattern.”)
Third, last week was national security adviser John Bolton’s first week on the job. Remember, his job is not to advocate for one position or another; it is to set up a decision-making process that allows the president to see a variety of views and make calls only the commander in chief is empowered to make. It is Bolton’s responsibility to make sure national security team members know where they are in the process and who will roll out new policy. If Haley was genuinely confused, that’s on Bolton. If she disregarded his direction or jumped the gun, it’s up to Bolton to reel her in.
Fourth and most important, our Russia policy, like our Syria policy, is in shambles. Congress has one policy — impose the toughest sanctions possible and call out Russia for everything from war crimes to domestic kleptocracy. Trump’s advisers have one or more of their own policies, none of which seem to entail focusing on Russia’s human rights abuses. And then there is the president, who insists on playing defense counsel for Russia and doing the least possible harm to Russia. He even wants to have a summit with Vladimir Putin. Our allies and foes are entitled to be utterly baffled by what is going on.
Finally, one cannot help but suspect part of the disarray stems from the president’s lack of focus on the issue at hand. He is obsessed with the Michael Cohen raid and with James B. Comey’s book tour. He’s back to ranting and raving on Twitter. In such an atmosphere one can imagine the lines of communication are unclear. A president angry about and distracted by personal legal matters cannot do his job properly; it is fair to question whether Trump is capable of making calm, deliberate decisions on critical matters of war and peace.
Whoever is to blame for yet another foreign policy embarrassment, the administration from the outside looks as incompetent and confused as ever. A president who has to be dragged — kicking and screaming — to do something about the United States’ most formidable international foe and who cannot preside over an orderly, professional White House is not fulfilling his obligations as chief executive or commander in chief. Trump is either weak, compromised or both. As a result, America is losing.