President Trump’s Russia problems are getting worse here at home, with the FBI conducting a formal criminal probe into his campaign’s ties to Moscow and his disgraced former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, seeking an immunity deal in exchange for his cooperation with the House and Senate panels conducting Trump/Russia investigations of their own.
That would be more than enough in and of itself for an embattled president already facing historically low approval ratings. Unfortunately for Trump, the Russia problems don’t end there: His top Cabinet members continue to openly — and explicitly — contradict his stated policies on Russia during trips abroad.
The latest reminders of the administration’s deep internal divide over how to deal with Vladimir Putin’s government came Friday, when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the administration would maintain the existing US sanctions on Russia until Moscow “reverses the actions” it has taken in Ukraine. Putin invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and continues to provide arms to the pro-Russian insurgents battling the US-backed central government in Kiev, a conflict that has already killed at least 10,000 people.
"We do not, and will not, accept Russian efforts to change the borders of territory of Ukraine," Tillerson said during a visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels, per a report on CNN. “The United States sanctions will remain until Moscow reverses the actions that triggered our sanctions."
The comments came just hours after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis pointedly referred to Russia as a “strategic competitor” and said Moscow was “mucking around” in foreign elections, an especially striking comment given the US intelligence community’s consensus belief that Putin interfered in the 2016 election to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Trump win the White House.
Taken together, Tillerson and Mattis were once again directly refuting their own boss, who has hinted he was willing to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea as part of a grand bargain that would include lifting some sanctions and has steadfastly denied Russian involvement in the elections. Trump also continues to insist that his campaign had no ties to Moscow despite the mounting evidence that it did — and despite the FBI’s formal confirmation that it’s investigating those very relationships.
Having the administration’s two most powerful Cabinet members openly at odds with their boss would be striking enough. What’s even more striking is that this isn’t the first time they’ve done so — and it probably won’t be the last.
Trump’s top aides disagree with him on sanctions and election meddling
Take Mattis, who said that the list of threats to America “starts with Russia” during his Senate confirmation hearing. During his own trip to Brussels for a NATO meeting in mid-February, he used a press conference to directly contradict Trump on two major Russia issues.
First, he ruled out military cooperation with Russia until it can “prove itself” capable of complying with international law. That’s flagrantly contradictory to a series of comments Trump has made, dating back more than a year, in which he proposes working with Russia to fight ISIS in Syria. Here’s Mattis:
They have to live by international law, just like we expect all mature nations on this planet to do. What we will do is engage politically. We are not in a position right now to collaborate on a military level, but our political leaders will engage and try to find common ground, or a way forward, where Russia is living up to its commitments. ... Russia is going to have to prove itself first, and live up to the commitments they have made in the Russia-NATO agreement.
Second, Mattis reaffirmed that Russia was indeed behind a number of attempts to interfere in elections in Western democracies, including the hacks on Hillary Clinton allies in the 2016 election — something Trump has been loath to do, as it casts doubt on the legitimacy of his own victory:
Q: Do you believe that the Russians interfered in the US elections?
MATTIS: Right now, I would just say there’s very little doubt that they have interfered or attempted to interfere in a number of elections in the democracies.
One of two things is happening here: Either Trump gave Mattis permission to contradict his longstanding positions on vital and controversial issues or Mattis has decided that he doesn’t like his boss’s approach to Russia and is just going to make his own. The first option is unlikely. But the second option isn’t exactly normal either.
Tillerson, for his part, has also been willing to publicly break with his boss. During a meeting of the G20 in Germany in February, Tillerson read a statement after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that seemed like it could have been given by a member of the Obama administration:
The United States will consider working with Russia when we can find areas of practical cooperation that will benefit the American people. Where we do not see eye-to-eye, the United States will stand up for the interests and values of America and her allies. As we search for new common ground, we expect Russia to honor its commitment to Minsk and work to deescalate violence in Ukraine.
This statement isn’t as brazen a contradiction of Trump’s positions as anything Mattis said. It sounds, instead, like the kind of boilerplate heard from the Obama administration — we’ll work with Russia when we can and oppose it when we can’t.
That kind of standard rhetoric is itself in subtle tension with Trump given the president’s own statements implying his administration was willing to break radically with the traditional US stance toward the Kremlin, including lifting sanctions.
The bottom line is that Trump’s deputies sound virtually nothing like him on what is, right now, the highest-profile foreign policy issue for his administration. Set aside the FBI investigation, the congressional probes, and Flynn’s apparent willingness to sell out his boss. Bombast and scandals aside, Trump’s top Cabinet members are working to maintain US policy toward Russia, not change it.