Trump’s policies, actions create divide on Russia

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President Trump and his allies argued Wednesday that critics should put more stock in the administration’s actions than the president’s words in Helsinki as the White House pushed back at suggestions Trump has been weak on Russia. 

Trump defended his Russia policies at the outset of a Cabinet meeting, saying there has been “no president ever as tough as I have been on Russia.” 

“All you have to do is look at the numbers, look at what we’ve done, look at sanctions, look at ambassadors, not there, look, unfortunately, at what happened in Syria recently,” he said. 

{mosads}Critics, however, say that while some of Trump’s policies are indeed tougher than the previous administration’s, much of their good has been undone by his other actions with regard to Russia. 

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, many of Trump’s policies are “loose change,” said Mark Simakovsky, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

“What matters is presidential diplomacy and willingness to improve ties,” Simakovsky said of Putin’s thinking.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has been deeply critical of the summit, warned that Trump’s words on the international stage have the potential to unwind any good done from his policies. 

“I still think, though, that what is said matters,” said Corker. “And when it feels like you’re purposely trying to break down our alliances with Europe or with NATO and in fact you create cause of concern like has happened, it still undermines many of the policies.”

Trump has come under withering criticism for an appearance with Putin in Helsinki on Monday in which he appeared to accept his counterpart’s denial of involvement in the U.S. election. 

Trump was also criticized for failing to take an opportunity to challenge Putin publicly over Russia’s interference in the U.S. election or its annexation of Crimea. 

Trump came under new criticism after the release Tuesday night of an interview with Fox News’s Tucker Carlson taped after the summit, in which Trump expressed doubt over the mutual defense pledge at the heart of NATO. 

“You know, Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people,” Trump said of the newest NATO member, which joined the alliance last year after a coup attempt blamed on Moscow. 

“They are very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III,” Trump said. “But that’s the way it was set up. Don’t forget, I just got here a little more than a year and a half ago.”

Trump’s defenders have pointed to the administration’s actions, saying the rhetoric is less important.

“I think people have to keep in mind that Trump is an outspoken individual,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Supporters cite Trump’s approval of selling U.S. weapons to Ukraine as an example of his tougher policies on Russia. 

The Trump administration’s national security strategy and national defense strategy both call out Russia as a top threat to the United States, and earlier this year, U.S. forces in Syria struck Russian mercenaries and killed a couple hundred when the mercenaries crossed an agreed-upon deconfliction zone. 

Trump expelled 60 Russian diplomats after Moscow was accused of poisoning an ex-spy in England. The administration has also levied new sanctions on Russia, though Congress forced Trump’s hand by passing sanctions legislation with veto-proof majorities.

Jim Carafano, a defense policy expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation who worked on the Trump transition, said those criticizing Trump are “cherry-picking” statements. For example, he said, despite Trump’s comments on Montenegro, he signed on to a declaration at the NATO summit this month supporting Macedonia’s bid to join the alliance.

“There’s no question that on the president’s Europe trip that he created enormous friction for his own policies, which are actually very tough on Russia and pro-the transatlantic relationship, that in his conduct, he actually created friction for people to understand and grasp that,” Carafano said.

“I don’t think he worries about the friction,” he continued. “He would acknowledge that, ‘Yeah, sometimes the things I say makes my friends and allies feel uncomfortable or confused, but you know what, in the end I’m going to deliver good results and they’ll forgive me.’ So I think he does a cost-benefit analysis.”

For those shaken by Helsinki, though, the policies don’t wash away the sins of the summit.

“The problem lies in the fact that, when the president does not speak the policy, the question is how well is it actually put into practice,” said Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The actions of the president and the words of the president are what most people see.”

Tags Bob Corker Donald Trump James Inhofe

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