by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
White House spokesman Raj Shah began Monday’s daily press briefing by extending the country’s “deepest sympathies to the Russian people” for a fire in Siberia before pivoting to “the expulsion of dozens of Russian intelligence officers, and the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle” on President Trump’s orders.
It’s symbolic of the delicate dance the White House has done on Russia. The Trump administration is full of Russia hawks and has frequently taken a hard line against Moscow on substantive policy matters — bombing a Russian client in Syria, arming Ukraine, securing commitments from NATO allies to increase their defense budgets, and adding new low-yield nuclear weapons programs.
If anything, the Russia hawks inside the administration are ascendant. Conspiracy theories aside, CIA Director Mike Pompeo is arguably more hawkish on Russia than the man Trump would like him to replace, outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Incoming national security adviser John Bolton is at least as hardline on this front as departing predecessor H.R. McMaster, and both were a step in a tougher direction than Michael Flynn. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley is a rising star. …
… Yet Trump has often seemed like an outlier inside his own administration, reluctant to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Russia and frequently tepid when doing so. This extends from Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election to the recent attack in the United Kingdom to congratulating Putin on a tainted election victory despite reported advice to the contrary.
Equivocal at best, unduly solicitous at worst, Trump’s Russia rhetoric — delivered against the backdrop of collusion investigations by special counsel Robert Mueller and multiple congressional committees — has prompted many Democrats to ask whether the president is somehow in Putin’s pocket.