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The secretary of defense appears to be making his own Russia policies

General James Mattis Sworn In As U.S. Defense Secretary (Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

At home, President Trump is flailing in the face of three separate scandals stemming from his administration’s close ties to the Kremlin. Abroad, his own appointees are busy creating another problem — brazenly undermining his stated policy on Russia in trips to foreign countries.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who said that the list of threats to America “starts with Russia” during his Senate confirmation hearing, was in Brussels for a meeting of NATO defense officials. During a press conference, Mattis contradicted 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.

This is a big issue in the wake of the Michael Flynn scandal. Flynn, you’ll recall, got into hot water for reaching out to the Russian ambassador and talking about sanctions — reportedly without the Trump administration’s permission. Mattis appears to be similarly freelancing the administration’s Russia policy, but he’s doing it publicly rather than hiding it and then subsequently lying about it. Trump just doesn’t seem to have a lot of control over what his deputies do when it comes to Russia.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in Germany for a meeting of the G20, an international economic forum involving 20 of the world’s largest economies, where he met with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Afterward, Tillerson read a statement that seemed like it could have been given by a member of the Obama administration. The secretary told Russia that it ought to honor the Minsk peace agreement governing the Ukraine conflict — which, given a recent uptick in violence there, it is clearly not doing:

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 that his own statements imply that the US will break radically with the traditional US stance toward the Kremlin.

The bottom line, then, is that Trump’s deputies sound virtually nothing like him on what is, right now, the highest-profile foreign policy issue for the administration. Trump’s bombast and scandals aside, actual American policy on Russia doesn’t appear to be changing very much.

Watch: How Putin won Republicans’ approval

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