The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s good cop-bad cop routine with Russia is looking untenable

In this file photo taken July 7, President Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 Summit. (Evan Vucci/AP)

President Trump's good cop-bad cop routine with Russia may be approaching its expiration date.

Russia's ambassador threw down the gauntlet Friday morning, telling NBC's “Today” show that it's time for the United States to decide where it stands with Russia. He even invoked the prospect of a new Cold War.

“It seems to me that atmosphere in Washington is poisoned; it's a toxic atmosphere,” said the ambassador, Anatoly Antonov. “It depends upon us to decide whether we are in Cold War or not.”

The White House has employed an entirely confusing strategy — if it actually is a strategy — on Russia. While its actions have often been rather tough, including expelling 60 Russia diplomats and closing Russia's consulate in Seattle this week, Trump remains conspicuously shy about adding his voice to the denunciations.

Just last week, Trump ignored advice from his advisers to “NOT CONGRATULATE” Vladimir Putin on his allegedly tainted reelection win and to broach the poisoning on British soil of an ex-Russian spy, for which Britain and the Trump administration have said Russia is responsible.

Nearly a month after that happened, in fact, Trump has yet to forcefully denounced the nerve-agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter; instead, Trump's most recent comments about Russia were tweets defending his congratulations for Putin and emphasizing the upside of improved relations.

It's a microcosm of Trump's approach to Russia. He has almost always emphasized the need for better relations and avoided saddling Russia with its 2016 election interference or the Skripal poisoning, but he has also been willing to sign off on retaliation for those things — sometimes very tough but also sometimes with Trump publicly expressing hesitation. It seems either Trump isn't involved in these decisions, or that he has made a calculated decision to dangle carrots while the rest of his administration wields the stick — to be the good cop.

But calling for improved relations at this point in time is somewhat bizarre. Trump seems to long for those improved relations even as they appear increasingly unrealistic. And his toned-down comments about Russia can't help but temper the tough signals that are being sent from the State Department. Trump almost seems to be hinting to Russia that he won't let things go too far, even as Russia's actions have necessitated bolder and bolder responses.

And now Russia is applying pressure on him to pick a side — improved relations or getting tough. “When we dance, it means both parties are responsible,” Antonov said Friday. “If United States does not want to dance tango, what should I do?”

Trump's simplistic desire to tango with Putin appears to be permanently on hold, thanks to the concrete realities of geopolitics. The question is whether Trump will ever recognize that and decide to present a united American front in an increasingly Cold War-esque showdown between Russia and the West — or whether he'll keep tempering (and perhaps undermining) his own administration's actions by clinging to false hope.