Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took a break from dealing with his brain-cancer diagnosis on Thursday to rebuke the White House. After The Washington Post on Wednesday revealed the Trump administration's recent decision to halt a CIA program to arm moderate Syrian rebels, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman accused it of “playing right into the hands of Vladimir Putin.”
“Making any concession to Russia, absent a broader strategy for Syria, is irresponsible and shortsighted,” McCain said.
This isn't the first time that President Trump has stood accused of catering to the Russian president, of course. Now six months into a presidency that he said would be aimed at better relations with Moscow — but also facing a federal investigation into his own Russia ties — Trump has made a few moves that have raised eyebrows. But as The Post has also reported, Russia has become frustrated with the lack of progress on its priorities, and the two sides have also clashed, including most notably over U.S. missile strikes in Syria in response the government's chemical weapons attack.
Here's a quick summary of where the White House has pushed the boundaries with its moves toward Russia thus far. It will be updated as warranted.
1. The Syria decision
The Post's Greg Jaffe and Adam Entous reported late Wednesday that the administration had ended the CIA's covert program to arm the moderate rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which the Obama administration began in 2013:
Officials said Trump made the decision to scrap the CIA program nearly a month ago, after an Oval Office meeting with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and national security adviser H.R. McMaster ahead of a July 7 meeting in Germany with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Those rebels are supposed to be distinct from the Islamic State, the third side in the Syrian civil war, but the program's success has been much-debated. What's clear is that this is the kind of move that Moscow wants, given Putin's alliance with Assad. The Trump administration can perhaps make a credible case that the program hasn't worked, but it's unmistakable that this is a decision of which Putin approves, as McCain and others have said.
“This is a momentous decision,” said a current U.S. official quoted by Jaffe and Entous. “Putin won in Syria.”
2. Possibly returning Russia's U.S. compounds
Included in the sanctions implemented by the Obama administration for Russia's 2016 election hacking was the seizure of two Russian diplomatic compounds in the United States allegedly used for intelligence-gathering — one in Maryland and one in New York. Beginning in late May, the Trump administration began looking at returning the compounds.
At first, Karen DeYoung and Entous reported, this was conditioned on Moscow allowing construction to continue on a U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg. This condition was later rescinded. Then last week, Russia threatened to take “reciprocal measures” if the compounds, which Russians refer to as “dachas,” are not returned. It was also a big topic this week when U.S. and Russian diplomats met at the State Department.
It's difficult to call this a win for Moscow yet, given the compounds haven't actually been returned. But the fact that it's even being debated is cause for concern for both congressional Republicans and Democrats, who have been almost completely unified in their support for such sanctions against Russia.
The administration has suggested it's a rather minor diplomatic squabble that is needlessly hindering any progress in U.S.-Russia relations. But that's also kind of the point: Members of Congress don't want to give an inch, but the White House wants a closer alliance.
3. Sharing classified information with top Russian officials in the Oval Office
In a May meeting in the Oval Office with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, a boastful Trump shared classified information from a sensitive foreign intelligence-gathering operation that officials worried could tip Russia off to the program:
Trump went on to discuss aspects of the threat that the United States learned only through the espionage capabilities of a key partner. He did not reveal the specific intelligence-gathering method, but he described how the Islamic State was pursuing elements of a specific plot and how much harm such an attack could cause under varying circumstances. Most alarmingly, officials said, Trump revealed the city in the Islamic State’s territory where the U.S. intelligence partner detected the threat.
The White House insisted Trump had done nothing wrong and had the right to declassify the information — the latter of which is true — but this was a program of which not even many U.S. allies were aware. And given Russia's goals in Syria are different from the United States' goals, sharing such information seemed an odd choice, at best, and highly unadvised, at worst.
4. Playing down Putin's human rights abuses
In a February interview with Bill O'Reilly, then still at Fox News, Trump provided perhaps one of the biggest PR wins Putin could have asked for. While explaining why he's okay working with Putin, Trump compared the Russian president's alleged killing of his political opponents to what the United States does.
Here's the transcript:
O'REILLY: He is a killer, though. Putin's a killer.
TRUMP: A lot of killers. We've got a lot of killers. What, you think our country's so innocent? You think our country's so innocent?
O'REILLY: I don't know of any government leaders that are killers in America.
TRUMP: Well, take a look at what we've done too. We've made a lot of mistakes. I've been against the war in Iraq from the beginning.
O'REILLY: Yes, mistakes are different than —
TRUMP: There's a lot of mistakes. okay, but a lot of people were killed. So, a lot of killers around, believe me.
The idea that the United States doesn't have the moral high ground on Putin was a remarkable concession for a U.S. president to make, and it suggested that Putin's human rights record wouldn't really be a consideration moving forward in the U.S.-Russia relationship. Again, this is something with which members of Congress in both parties would strongly disagree.