On Monday evening, President Trump lost his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who resigned amid a swarm of questions about whether he misled top White House officials and the FBI over a December phone call with the Russian ambassador to the US. But in the process, Trump may have also suffered another major loss: his best and easiest shot at warming ties with Russia, by lifting sanctions on the country.
The Trump administration has been struck by a hurricane of controversy stemming from Flynn’s resignation, including questions over whether Flynn potentially illegally discussed lifting sanctions on Russia during his communications with the Russian diplomat, and a continuing FBI probe into those communications, which could lead to criminal prosecutions. Additionally, the Army is looking into whether Flynn received money from the Russian government for a trip to Moscow in 2015, which could be a violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution.
There are also questions over how much Trump or top White House officials actually knew about Flynn’s call — including whether Trump may have authorized it in the first place.
The unprecedented scrutiny of ties between the Trump administration and Moscow is in and of itself politically damaging for the White House. But it also might rob Trump of his ability to lift sanctions on Russia, one of his most widely anticipated maneuvers designed to reset Washington’s relationship with the Kremlin.
Foreign policy observers had long anticipated that Trump would lift sanctions on Russia as his opening gambit to signal his commitment to improving US-Russian ties. After Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said earlier in February that sanctions against Russia for its annexation of part of Ukraine in 2014 were expected to remain in place, the most obvious set of sanctions to lift became the ones Obama slapped on Moscow’s intelligence establishment in December for using cyberattacks to interfere with the US presidential election.
Since those sanctions were imposed by executive order, Trump could overturn them on his own — without having to drag legislation through a Congress that up until very recently held deeply bipartisan animosity toward Putin. While that set of sanctions was largely symbolic, lifting them would instantly thaw some of the tensions between Washington and Moscow and open up a conversation on potential cooperation in pursuing shared interests.
Prior to Flynn’s resignation, that move would have been controversial but doable. Now it’s looking like it would blow up in Trump’s face.
Flynn’s ouster is raising the political costs of lifting sanctions. The press and advocates are going to pursue investigation of Trump’s ties to Russia with even more vigor. Democratic lawmakers are already ramping up their calls for independent congressional investigations (which top Republicans are refusing to consider for now). And the intelligence community is poring over Trump administration records for evidence of wrongdoing.
That’s not enough to say Trump won’t lift sanctions anyway — but he and his advisers likely know that it would be foolish not to delay lifting them until wide concern over Russia’s meddling in Washington fades. That could be a while.
Is all of this actually going to prevent Trump from lifting sanctions?
At first glance, it might be hard to see why Trump would feel hamstrung by the Russia controversies engulfing his administration. Trump thrives off catering to his base through polarizing policies that cause enormous uproar from critics, like his ban restricting travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.
But there are a few other factors to consider here. One is that being nice to Russia isn’t something the GOP base actually wants; it’s just something they’ve grown more receptive to because Trump has talked about it so frequently that their negative views of the Kremlin have become less intense. So while the share of Republicans who consider Russia a major threat has decreased in the past year or so, more than 40 percent of them still consider Russia a major threat, according to Pew data from January. It’s safe to say there aren’t huge rewards to be reaped from warming ties with Russia.
On the other hand, lifting sanctions is something that would likely cause a huge outcry among those left of center — and from some members of the GOP, like Sens. Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and Marco Rubio, who have repeatedly expressed discomfort with Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin. It could very well breathe even more energy into the emerging anti-Trump protest movement, and it could intensify the intelligence community’s scrutiny of Trump’s administration.
Finally, there is the possibility that Trump will at some point actually grow concerned about the increased prominence of narratives suggesting that he doesn’t control his own policy and that he’s at the beck and call of a foreign leader. After reports earlier in February that his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, was the true mastermind at the White House — and some jokes from Saturday Night Live driving home the point — Trump took to Twitter to promise the public, “I call my own shots.”
Trump doesn’t have a great deal to gain from lifting sanctions on Russia, but he does stand to lose quite a bit from it at this moment. His much-anticipated olive branch to Moscow is likely to be delayed as a result of it.