The Washington Post reported late Sunday that President Trump “has battled his top aides on Russia and lost.”
Less than 20 hours later, Trump reversed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley’s announcement that the United States would be ramping up sanctions on Russia.
The sudden reversal of Haley’s Sunday morning announcement is hardly the only example of the right hand in the White House not always knowing what the left hand is up to. Trump often seems to be negotiating not just those around him but also with himself, and he has been unafraid of contradicting top aides and even Cabinet-level officials such as Haley.
But on Russia and on an issue of such import, the quick reversal is stunning — and relatively rare. There is no clear indication whether Haley or someone else is at fault, but as The Post’s team notes, she has a tendency to clear her remarks with Trump personally before she makes them. It seems entirely possible that she got Trump to sign off on saying more Russia sanctions were coming on Sunday morning, and then the White House got cold feet (possibly because Trump suddenly felt the need to exert his influence over the process).
A look back at Haley’s remarks Sunday leaves little doubt that she appeared on CBS News’s “Face the Nation” with the clear purpose of announcing the sanctions. It was the second answer she provided, and she volunteered the information rather than being lured into saying something that perhaps wasn’t ready for public consumption.
BRENNAN: Are there any consequences for Assad’s patrons, Russia and Iran, who continue to protect him?
HALEY: Absolutely. So you will see that Russian sanctions will be coming down. Secretary [Steven] Mnuchin will be announcing those on Monday, if he hasn’t already. And they will go directly to any sort of companies that were dealing with equipment related to Assad and chemical weapons used.
Those are very specific comments — not only that sanctions are coming, but also that Mnuchin would announce them within 24 hours or so. It’s really difficult to believe Haley was just freelancing here and didn’t get the go-ahead to announce something of such significance.
It also seems entirely possible Trump wants to counteract that idea that those around him are pushing forward with a tough posture on Russia while he acts more like a bystander. It’s been a subplot for much of his presidency, as he has declined to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin and expressed a desire for better relations, even as his administration has gotten tough. I’ve called it a good cop-bad cop strategy, but perhaps it hasn’t been a strategy at all. Perhaps Trump, who has shown little inclination for the finer points of policy, simply hasn’t been paying close attention and has truly been just signing off on what his State Department and Treasury Department do, believing he has no choice.
The fact that it took more than 24 hours after Haley’s comments to issue a public clarification suggests that things weren’t all that clear inside the White House on Sunday. Haley’s office still hasn’t sought to correct the record, despite it being perhaps the top story to come out of the Sunday morning news shows.
Regardless of whose fault it was, it suggests a lack of organization. And if this is Trump checking his administration’s long-running drift toward a tougher Russia policy — something he hasn’t previously done a whole lot to rein in — it could signal a very significant shift in posture, along with a very significant assertion of presidential prerogative.