Trump has only dif­fi­cult Rus­sia op­tions

He faces pres­sure to sign a sanc­tions bill and re­spond to Putin’s edict on em­bassy staff.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Brian Ben­nett and Noah Bier­man

WASH­ING­TON — Pres­i­dent Trump has been backed into a cor­ner on Rus­sia pol­icy, fac­ing only bad op­tions — pressed by Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin on one side and, from the other, by as­sertive U.S. law­mak­ers who don’t trust Trump to stand up to the au­to­crat.

A near-unan­i­mous Congress last week sent to the White House a sanc­tions bill that clamps down on Rus­sia, along with Iran and North Korea, and ties Trump’s hands from of­fer­ing Putin re­lief from ex­ist­ing sanc­tions. Putin has re­tal­i­ated by de­mand­ing the United States slash its diplo­matic pres­ence by about twothirds, or 755 peo­ple.

Trump is caught in the mid­dle. At home, he’s un­der pres­sure to sign the sanc­tions bill into law and aides say he will, if only be­cause Congress could eas­ily over­ride a veto. Sign­ing the bill, how­ever, could sink his ef­fort to im­prove re­la­tions with Rus­sia and bond with Putin.

“He clearly is un­com­fort­able,” said Alexan­der Ver­sh­bow, a U.S. am­bas­sador to Rus­sia from 2001 through 2005.

Here and on the world stage, Trump runs the risk of look­ing weak if he doesn’t re­act boldly to Rus­sia’s Cold War-style ex­pul­sion of so many U.S. em­bassy per­son­nel. Yet over the last few days, Trump has been silent against a hos­tile act that in any prior ad­min­is­tra­tion would have pro­voked a pres­i­den­tial re­sponse.

“The pres­i­dent does look a lit­tle weak cer­tainly vis-avis the Congress, but at the same time there’s also the psy­cho­log­i­cal un­will­ing­ness to speak out against Putin,” said Ver­sh­bow, now a fel­low at the At­lantic Coun­cil. “It’s al­ways been in­ex­pli­ca­ble. It’s be­come even more in­ex­pli­ca­ble.”

In­stead, Trump has left it

to Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence, who is trav­el­ing abroad, to fire back against the Krem­lin.

“Very soon, Pres­i­dent Trump will sign leg­is­la­tion to strengthen and cod­ify the United States’ sanc­tions against Rus­sia,” Pence said in a speech Tues­day in Tbil­isi, Ge­or­gia, dur­ing a swing through for­mer Soviet re­publics bor­der­ing Rus­sia’s west­ern edge.

Pence con­demned Rus­sia’s 10-year-long oc­cu­pa­tion of South Os­se­tia, an area that makes up about one­fifth of Geor­gian ter­ri­tory, point­ing out that Rus­sian tanks sit on the bor­der of the oc­cu­pied lands about 40 miles from Tbil­isi.

“We stand here to­day in the gap, on a front line of free­dom, a front line com­pro­mised by Rus­sian ag­gres­sion nearly a decade ago,” Pence said.

The U.S. “prefers a con­struc­tive re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia,” Pence said. “But the pres­i­dent and our Congress are uni­fied in our mes­sage to Rus­sia — a bet­ter re­la­tion­ship, the lift­ing of sanc­tions, will re­quire Rus­sia to re­verse the ac­tions that caused the sanc­tions to be im­posed in the first place. And not be­fore.”

Those ac­tions in­cluded Rus­sia’s an­nex­a­tion of Crimea, for­merly part of Ukraine, and its sup­port of pro-Rus­sian sep­a­ratists fight­ing in Ukraine’s east.

Trump tried to de­velop a friend­ship with Putin over the first six months of his ad­min­is­tra­tion, mostly by phone un­til the two men met ex­ten­sively last month at a sum­mit of lead­ing na­tions in Ham­burg, Ger­many. Their con­tacts there in­cluded a pri­vate dis­cus­sion of more than two hours and a sep­a­rate long chat dur­ing a din­ner clos­ing the sum­mit.

But early on, their ef­forts at build­ing rap­port seemed des­tined to fal­ter. Hang­ing over their courtship is the in­ves­ti­ga­tion by a Jus­tice De­part­ment spe­cial coun­sel into whether Trump’s cam­paign col­luded with Rus­sia to win the elec­tion. Also, de­spite Trump’s over­tures to Putin, Rus­sia hasn’t let up on ef­forts to un­der­mine demo­cratic elec­tions in Europe and to foil U.S. ac­tions in Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan and Libya.

The sanc­tions bill that cleared Congress last week, over ad­min­is­tra­tion ob­jec­tions, is be­ing re­viewed by West Wing lawyers, Sarah Huck­abee San­ders told re­porters Tues­day to ex­plain why Trump hasn’t signed it yet. “There is noth­ing hold­ing him back. There is a re­view process, a le­gal process they are go­ing through, and he will sign the bill and we will let you guys know,” San­ders said.

Only last month Trump was openly cel­e­brat­ing his new ties to Putin. Speak­ing to re­porters on Air Force One en route to Paris in mid-July, the pres­i­dent said he would be open to invit­ing the Rus­sian pres­i­dent to the White House at some point.

“If you don’t have di­a­logue, you have to be fools — fools,” Trump said. “It would be the eas­i­est thing for me to say … ‘I will never speak to him,’ and ev­ery­body would love me. But I have to do what’s right,” he said.

Even as Trump has cel­e­brated his out­reach to Putin, he has ar­gued that, as a can­di­date and now pres­i­dent, his pro­posed poli­cies — to boost mil­i­tary spend­ing and in­crease en­ergy pro­duc­tion more than Hil­lary Clin­ton would — should make him less pop­u­lar with Moscow than his Demo­cratic ri­val.

The sanc­tions bill, if he signs it, would cod­ify the pun­ish­ments Pres­i­dent Obama placed on Rus­sia in De­cem­ber for med­dling in the 2016 elec­tion, and also im­pose sig­nif­i­cant re­stric­tions on his stew­ard­ship of for­eign pol­icy.

It would pre­vent Trump, or any other pres­i­dent, from lift­ing those sanc­tions with­out go­ing back to Congress for ap­proval. The mea­sure also would add re­stric­tions af­fect­ing Rus­sia’s en­ergy sec­tor and its in­tel­li­gence and de­fense op­er­a­tions, mak­ing it harder for Moscow to ex­port weapons.

Law­mak­ers ini­tially wrote the sanc­tions leg­is­la­tion to re­strict ef­forts by Iran and North Korea to de­velop nu­clear-armed mis­siles. They sub­se­quently in­cluded Rus­sia out of bi­par­ti­san con­cern that Trump might ease ex­ist­ing sanc­tions on Rus­sia to curry fa­vor with Putin.

Nile Gardiner, di­rec­tor of the Mar­garet Thatcher Cen­ter for Free­dom at the con­ser­va­tive Her­itage Foun­da­tion and a for­mer aide to the for­mer Bri­tish prime min­is­ter, said Trump was tak­ing the path of the pre­vi­ous two pres­i­dents — Obama and Ge­orge W. Bush — who came into of­fice seek­ing bet­ter re­la­tions with Rus­sia, only to run into the hard re­al­ity that Putin’s in­ter­ests are fun­da­men­tally at odds with Amer­ica’s.

“The re­al­ity is you can’t get along with Vladimir Putin,” he said.

Gardiner said that Trump was del­e­gat­ing Rus­sian re­la­tions to staff, which was tak­ing a jus­ti­fi­ably hard line, and that “the pres­i­dent is mov­ing more and more in sync” with ad­min­is­tra­tion ex­perts.

He pointed to sev­eral pol­icy po­si­tions that show a harder line to­ward Rus­sia. Among them: the pres­i­dent’s ap­par­ent in­tent to sign the sanc­tions bill; his sup­port for build­ing up mil­i­tary power in Europe and for the ex­ist­ing sanc­tions against Moscow for its ag­gres­sion to­ward Ukraine; the de­ploy­ment of bombers to Bri­tain; and dis­cus­sion of send­ing de­fen­sive weapons to Ukraine.

Gardiner agreed that Trump’s rhetoric had been more con­cil­ia­tory to­ward Rus­sia, but pointed to Pence’s tough words dur­ing his visit this week in the Baltics.

“I hope that Pres­i­dent Trump will fol­low Pence’s lead on this,” he said. “Pence is say­ing all the things that need to be said.”

Zurab Kurt­sikidze AFP/Getty Im­ages

VICE PRES­I­DENT Mike Pence speaks on Tues­day in Tbil­isi, Ge­or­gia, where he had harsh words for the Krem­lin. “I hope that Pres­i­dent Trump will fol­low Pence’s lead on this,” one for­eign pol­icy ex­pert said. “Pence is say­ing all the things that need to be said.”

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