The message was defiantly optimistic, like a suitor determined to hold a relationship together despite mounting obstacles.
“Things will work out fine between the U.S.A. and Russia,” President Trump declared on his Twitter account last week. “At the right time everyone will come to their senses & there will be lasting peace!”
Trump’s interest in achieving warm relations with Moscow has been a consistent theme since the earliest days of his campaign, and it stands now as one of the few major foreign policy positions that he has not discarded or revised since taking office.
But in his devotion to this outcome, Trump appears increasingly isolated within his own administration. Over the past several weeks, senior members of Trump’s national security team have issued blistering critiques of Moscow, using harsh terms that have led to escalating tensions between the countries and that seem at odds with the president.
The harsh rhetoric — and the apparent lack of any rebuke from Trump — suggests that Russian skeptics have gained influence in the administration, making the rapprochement that Trump envisioned seem increasingly remote.
In a speech at the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley lashed out at Russia for its role in Syria, asking “how many more children have to die before Russia cares” enough to prevent Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from committing further atrocities.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson accused Russia of being “incompetent or complicit” in the chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of Syrian civilians.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo went even further in an appearance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington last week, depicting Moscow as an unredeemable adversary. Though Trump has repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pompeo described him as “a man for whom ‘veracity’ doesn’t translate into English.”
The statements have created confusion about the Trump administration’s posture toward Russia and put senior officials, including Haley, in the awkward position of having to explain why Trump has yet to echo any of their strong words.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Foreign policy experts close to the administration played down the apparent disconnect between Trump’s statements and those of his national security subordinates, saying that Trump’s words about Russia were often misinterpreted to signal that he intended to be soft.
“There was never anything in the plan about being nice to the Russians,” said James Carafano, the vice president of foreign and defense policy at the Heritage Foundation, who served as an adviser to Trump during the campaign and post-election transition.
“I don’t think any of this is a U-turn, a reversal or a shift,” Carafano said. He noted that Trump’s decision to bomb an airstrip in Syria where the Russian military had worked with Assad’s forces and Trump’s recent vocal support for NATO demonstrate his willingness to defy Putin.
“Trump doesn’t have to do Russia bashing” and is probably seeking to leave an opening for Putin to pursue better relations with the United States, Carafano said. “The fact that [Trump’s officials] are not mimicking the exact same words doesn’t mean they’re not on the same sheet of music.”
In recent weeks, Trump has had opportunities to reinforce the messages of his subordinates. In a news conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg this month, Trump said relations with Moscow “may be at an all-time low” but described Russia as “a strong country” and said, “We’re going to see how that all works out.”
Asked about growing concerns in Europe over alleged Moscow interference in elections and calls for bolstering Europe’s military defenses, Trump had no words of caution for the Kremlin.
“Right now there is a fear, and there are problems,” Trump said. “But, ultimately, I hope that there won’t be a fear and there won’t be problems and the world can get along. That would be the ideal situation.”
Trump’s tack with Russia seems at odds with his approach toward other global powers and issues. He threatened to label China a currency manipulator and to cut off U.S. support for NATO, for example, before retreating from those positions in recent weeks.
Trump’s posture toward Moscow is also seen as a reflection of his reluctance to acknowledge that Russia interfered in the U.S. election and, based on the consensus view of U.S. intelligence agencies, sought to help him win.
Critics said the administration’s competing messages have caused concern overseas. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said that he recently attended a security conference in Munich where there were “profound questions among our allies about just where this administration is coming from.”
“They don’t see the president yet willing to take on Putin or to criticize him directly,” Schiff said. “It doesn’t matter what others in his Cabinet said. If they didn’t hear it from the president, they didn’t really believe it was administration policy.”
Senior administration officials have struggled to explain the disparity in their comments — including statements suggesting that Russia may have known that Assad was about to launch a chemical weapons attack — with those of the president.
“I think we’re both saying the same thing; it’s just being reported differently,” Haley said during an interview on ABC News this month. Pressed on why Trump has not condemned Moscow, Haley said, “This is what I can tell you: The president has not once called me and said, ‘Don’t beat up on Russia,’ has not once called me and told me what to say.”
Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, faced similar questions in a separate ABC interview this week when asked how the president could be so confident that “things will work out fine” and predict “lasting peace.”
“Well,” McMaster quipped, “when relations are at the lowest point, there’s nowhere to go but up.”
McMaster has helped form the administration’s more combative stance toward Moscow. He replaced Michael Flynn, who seemed to share Trump’s interest in pursuing closer relations with Moscow before Flynn was fired for his misleading statements about his contacts with the Russian ambassador.
Juan Zarate, a former national security official who advised Pompeo during his confirmation as CIA chief, said that he sees Trump’s continued conciliatory messages toward Moscow as a means of preserving options for the administration in its dealings with Russia.
“I worry less about what appears to be some discordance because I think you can have flexibility in messaging,” Zarate said. “But you do have to have consistency in policy. For now it seems like we do. In fact the policy seems to be getting more vigorous and confrontational.”
But Zarate also noted Trump’s tendency to “double down on positions.” Trump was criticized for seeming lenient toward Moscow, “and lo and behold he’s going to stick to his line.”
Moscow has also noticed the administration’s competing messages. After a series of sharp exchanges with senior U.S. officials, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this week that Moscow would focus on signals from the president.
“We will be guided by what President Donald Trump once again confirmed . . . that he wants to improve relations with the Russian Federation,” Lavrov said. “We are also ready for that.”