Trump May Like Putin. His Administration Doesn’t.

How the U.S. president’s Russia rapprochement never came to pass.

By Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump looks at Russia's President Vladimir Putin as they take their places for a group photo during the G-20 Leaders' Summit in Buenos Aires on Nov. 30, 2018.
U.S. President Donald Trump looks at Russia's President Vladimir Putin as they take their places for a group photo during the G-20 Leaders' Summit in Buenos Aires on Nov. 30, 2018. Alexander Nemenova/AFP/Getty Images

On the campaign trail, now-President Donald Trump vowed to improve U.S. relations with Russia, and the report released by special counsel Robert Mueller earlier this month lays out in detail how his staffers tried to make it so. They made high-level contacts, set up secret communication back channels, and sought to water down the Republican Party’s stance on Russia ahead of the 2016 party convention.

Yet the U.S.-Russia relationship has remained frosty throughout Trump’s presidency. That has left many in Washington and Moscow scratching their heads over the disconnect between what Trump has said about Russian President Vladimir Putin—or just as often, hasn’t said, since Trump almost never criticizes him—and what his administration has done.

Despite the U.S. president’s admiring words for his Russian counterpart, his administration has held a tough line on Russia, building on his predecessor’s policies by layering on further sanctions, expelling dozens of Russian diplomats, and providing lethal weapons support to Ukraine—a step that former President Barack Obama had been unwilling to take.

The outcome has been a disjointed Russia policy, experts say. “I would not relish the job of being the America watcher in the Kremlin right now,” said Steven Pifer, a retired career diplomat who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs from 2001 to 2004.

Under Trump, the United States has had two Russia policies: what the president says and what the administration does. Former officials and Russia experts attribute this disconnect to the chaos of the transition period, the appointment of seasoned Russia hands to high-level posts, the scrutiny of the Mueller investigation into Trump’s Russia ties, and an assertive Congress, which have all checked the president’s desire for a rapprochement with Moscow.

The fact that the administration’s Russia policy has gone in the opposite direction from Trump’s campaign rhetoric is somewhat unusual for a president who has eagerly sought to implement his stump pledges on other issues, such as NAFTA withdrawal and a wall along the border with Mexico.

In his first foreign-policy speech as a presidential candidate, Trump vowed to pursue closer ties with Russia if elected. The April 2016 speech was hosted by the National Interest, an international affairs magazine published by the Center for the National Interest. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and advisor, had sought counsel from the center’s head, Dimitri Simes, earlier that year as the Trump campaign was struggling to get buy-in from foreign-policy experts.

The special counsel report details how Simes had agreed with Kushner that he and other people associated with the Center for the National Interest would provide input for the foreign-policy sections of the speech. Just ahead of the event, Kushner forwarded Simes a draft outline of the speech prepared by Trump’s senior policy advisor Stephen Miller, and he introduced Simes to Miller.

A former informal advisor to President Richard Nixon, Simes was born in the Soviet Union and emigrated to the United States in 1973. The Mueller report notes how Simes’s Center for the National Interest had previously promoted its “unparalleled access to Russian officials,” and longtime Russia watchers in Washington said that Simes was known to have opinions that closely aligned to the Kremlin’s worldview.

The special counsel report concluded that the investigators did not find any evidence to suggest that either Simes or the Center for the National Interest had served as a conduit for communications between Russia and the Trump campaign.

The Mueller report charts how as early as early as July 2016, Trump campaign staffers became wary of making public overtures to Russia. Campaign advisor Bo Denysyk told foreign-policy advisor George Papadopoulos to hold off in his outreach to Russian Americans because the media had portrayed Trump as “being pro-Russian.” In his testimony to the special counsel’s office, Simes recalled he had advised that it was bad optics for the Trump team to develop hidden Russian contacts and advised that the campaign not highlight Russia as an issue.

A former senior administration official, who asked to remain anonymous so as to discuss their time with the administration, said that since Trump took office Russia has become such a political hot potato that nobody in the White House wants to broach the subject, even for routine matters. “No one wants to put themselves in front of that firing squad,” this former official said.

Had there been no Mueller investigation, Trump may have felt more free to make overtures to Putin, but it would still have taken a drastically different Congress and major changes in staff appointments to make it a reality, Russia watchers and former senior officials told Foreign Policy.

“Congress was in no mood for a softening of policy towards Russia,” said David Kramer, a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor under Obama. While this may have been able to constrain Trump’s instincts on Russia, Kramer said it has given him little comfort.

“This is not really a policy. Because a policy has to be matched with rhetoric,” he said. “It is not reassuring that the man at the top does not seem to be in sync with the rest of his administration.”

Presidents Obama and George W. Bush both sought to improve ties with Moscow during their tenure, but Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and electoral interference have made it impossible to make the political case for outreach in recent years, said Daniel Fried, a former State Department coordinator for sanctions policy who until his retirement in 2017 was America’s longest-serving diplomat.

And with Russia coming high on the list of foreign-policy concerns after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, interagency cooperation on Russia was a well-oiled machine by the time Trump won the election. During the transition period, former senior administration officials who worked on Russia say in the absence of any clear guidance from the White House, career officials continued their work as before.

“We were getting no guidance—well, we were getting weird guidance,” said Jeffrey Edmonds, who served the director for Russia on the National Security Council and acting senior director for Russia during the 2017 presidential transition. Among the directions handed down by the White House, Edmonds said that officials were told to stop talking about Ukraine’s sovereignty, which he said he found to be “disturbing.”

Where little direction was handed down by the White House, rumors filled the void, and a former senior administration official who worked on European issues said that there was a pervasive fear that after the inauguration they would discover that a deal had been struck over Ukraine without consulting career officials.

No such deal appeared, but in February 2017 the New York Times reported that a number of Trump’s campaign associates had worked on a peace deal that would see sanctions lifted and the Crimean peninsula given to Russia under a long-term lease agreement. The proposal was delivered to Michael Flynn shortly before he resigned as national security advisor for misleading officials about his interactions with the Russian ambassador.

Flynn had extensive Russian ties and had advocated for Washington to see Moscow as a partner, rather than an adversary. His successor, H.R. McMaster, came to be seen as a bulwark on Russia policy, as his views on Russia were more in sync with the wider defense establishment.

While Trump and members of his inner circle may have sought improved ties with Russia, former administration officials and Russia experts say that this was not reflected in appointments, as seasoned diplomats and Russia hands were selected to fill key posts.

“These are guys who hold what I would describe as traditional Republican views on Russia,” said Pifer, the retired diplomat.

This has been reflected in the administration’s national security strategies, which, for the past two years, have singled out Russia and China as America’s key competitors on the world stage.

The appointment of the well-respected Russia scholar Fiona Hill as senior director for Europe and Russia on the National Security Council prompted a sigh of relief among many Russia watchers.

“What we see is that Trump really gets put in a box on this issue,” said Alina Polyakova, a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“This is a question of how Trump chooses people, and no one really knows the answer to this,” she said.

Despite these appointments, fears persisted that, with the flick of a pen, the president could undo U.S. sanctions on Russia. These fears were allayed in the summer of 2017, when Congress near-unanimously passed a bill imposing sweeping sanctions on Russia.

“Up until that point. there was concern that the Trump administration would unravel the sanctions regime,” said Daniel Vajdich, a former senior advisor for Europe and Eurasia on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Known by its acronym CAATSA, which stands for “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act,” the law limits the president’s ability to unilaterally lift sanctions. Sanctions were placed on Russia over its annexation of Crimea and role in fomenting war in eastern Ukraine.

The sanctions have long been reviled in Moscow. The Mueller report details how after Trump’s victory, Putin held an all-hands meeting to discuss the prospect of further U.S. sanctions. While there are still ways in which the president could make symbolic overtures to Moscow, he is limited in his ability to dislodge the thorn of sanctions from the side of the U.S.-Russia relationship.

“By and large, U.S.-Russia policy is on autopilot since CAATSA was adopted,” said Vajdich, who now serves as president of the strategic advisory firm Yorktown Solutions.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack