News Analysis: Trump Opens His Arms to Russia. His Administration Closes Its Fist.
WASHINGTON — It was a jarring moment, even for an American leader whose curious attraction to Russia has often resulted in mixed messages from the United States.
Just a few hours after President Trump doused expectations of extracting any confession from President Vladimir V. Putin on Russia’s election meddling when they meet on Monday, his own Justice Department issued a sweeping indictment of 12 Russian intelligence agents for hacking the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton presidential campaign.
The bold move, precisely the kind that Mr. Trump has long resisted, demonstrated how he is almost wholly untethered from his administration when it comes to dealing with Moscow. Whether it is Russia’s interference in the election, its annexation of Crimea or its intervention in Syria, Mr. Trump’s statements either undercut, or flatly contradict, those of his lieutenants.
The disconnect is so profound that it often seems Mr. Trump is pursuing one Russia policy, set on ushering in a gauzy new era of cooperation with Mr. Putin, while the rest of his administration is pursuing another, set on countering a revanchist power that the White House has labeled one of the greatest threats to American security and prosperity.
As Mr. Trump prepares to meet with Mr. Putin in Finland, diplomats and former government officials said these contradictions would undermine both the president’s efforts to cultivate a relationship with Mr. Putin and his government’s efforts to halt Russia’s campaigns to damage American democratic institutions and bully its neighbors.
“The president has hobbled his own executive branch, and the executive branch has hobbled its own president,” said Strobe Talbott, a Russia expert who served as deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration and was president of the Brookings Institution. “It’s a three-legged race with the contestants going in opposite directions.”
This past week provided a spectacle of crossed signals on Russia. In Europe, Mr. Trump disparaged the investigation of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, while in Washington, the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, somberly announced the latest round of indictments in the case.
“I call it the rigged witch hunt,” Mr. Trump said, as Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain looked on. “I think that really hurts our country and it really hurts our relationship with Russia.”
A few hours later, Mr. Trump’s director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, compared the danger of Russian cyberattacks to the stream of terrorist threats against the United States before Sept. 11, 2001. He said Mr. Putin should be held responsible for them.
In his hawkishness toward Moscow, Mr. Coats lines up with other members of Mr. Trump’s national security team, from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The national security adviser, John R. Bolton, has publicly encouraged Mr. Trump to keep pressing Russia on election meddling, noting that in a preparatory meeting with him, Mr. Putin denied Russian state involvement, but not any Russian involvement at all.
“The president will have to pursue that further, and I think that’s one reason he and President Putin need to have this conversation,” Mr. Bolton said two weeks ago.
The White House enshrined a tough approach to Russia in its national security strategy, which was written under the direction of Mr. Bolton’s predecessor, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who spoke regularly about the threat Moscow posed to America’s institutions.
The document says Russia and China “are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.”
The administration has deployed time-tested diplomatic weapons against Moscow. According to an internal government document, the United States has imposed sanctions on 213 Russian-related targets, including close associates of Mr. Putin, since January 2017, as punishment for Russia’s cyberattacks and its predatory behavior in Ukraine.
The State Department shut down the Russian Consulate in San Francisco in a tit-for-tat move after Russia struck back against sanctions. And it expelled 60 Russian diplomats to retaliate for Russia’s poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil.
In some respects, it has gone further than the Obama administration. In December 2017, the White House approved the sale of lethal defensive weapons to the Ukrainian military for its battle against Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine — a step President Barack Obama resisted because he feared it would escalate the confrontation with Russia.
Mr. Trump does not hesitate to take credit for the hard line toward Russia. But he does so in perfunctory language, rarely turning his fire on Mr. Putin himself and instead making unfavorable comparisons to his predecessor, Mr. Obama.
“President Obama failed very badly with Crimea,” Mr. Trump said on Friday when asked about Russia’s annexation. “This was an Obama disaster. And I think if I were president then, he would not have taken over Crimea.”
On Saturday, while at his golf club in Scotland, Mr. Trump blamed Mr. Obama for not acting against Russia’s election interference. “These Russian individuals did their work during the Obama years. Why didn’t Obama do something about it? Because he thought Crooked Hillary Clinton would win, that’s why,” he said in a tweet.
While some former Obama administration officials say they now wish Mr. Obama had reacted more forcefully, they argue that if he had spoken out, Mr. Trump would have accused him of trying to rig the election. Mr. Obama did personally issue a warning to Mr. Putin in September 2016 not to tamper with the election, and then his administration formally accused Russia of stealing and leaking emails from the Democratic National Committee, among others.
Mr. Trump has consistently played down Russia’s role in the election, or his obligation to prevent such disruption from happening again. When his spokeswoman issued a statement about the indictment of the 12 Russians, it said nothing about the attack on American democracy, emphasizing instead that no one in his campaign had been accused of wrongdoing.
The president typically adopts a tone of weary irritation when he is asked about questioning Mr. Putin on the topic, like a parent being asked by a child, for the 20th time, whether a long family drive is almost over.
“Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Putin, after the two spoke in Vietnam last November. “I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry, echoing Mr. Trump’s claim of a “deep state” conspiracy behind the special counsel inquiry, said late Friday that political forces in the United States that are opposed to a rapprochement had timed the release of the new indictments to “spoil the atmosphere” before the Russian-American summit meeting.
Officials in the administration argue that its policies give Mr. Trump leverage over Mr. Putin. The Russian leader, they said, desperately wants to ease the pressure of sanctions, on his economy and his cronies. Mr. Trump’s promise to modernize America’s nuclear arsenal is putting pressure on Mr. Putin to seek an arms control treaty to replace the so-called New Start treaty.
Some Obama administration officials agree that the geopolitical conditions should favor the United States. “We’re holding the strongest hand we’ve had with a Russian president in a long time,” said Victoria Nuland, a former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs.
“Trump should be demanding a rollback of bad Russian behavior,” said Ms. Nuland, who is now the chief executive of the Center for a New American Security. “Instead we’re wondering what gifts he’s going to give him.”
Former officials acknowledge that Mr. Trump’s aides have given up trying to manage what he says to Mr. Putin in phone calls or meetings. Mr. Putin proposed the idea of a meeting in March during a call in which Mr. Trump ignored advice not to congratulate the Russian leader on his lopsided re-election victory and did not bring up Russia’s meddling in the American election.
Diplomats argue that in the psychology of leader-to-leader relations, Mr. Trump’s refusal to criticize Mr. Putin — combined with his solicitous tone in seeking a relationship with him — outweighs the effect of sanctions or the expulsion of Russian diplomats.
“What matters is what he says,” said R. Nicholas Burns, a senior diplomat who served in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. “There’s no question that President Trump is weakening the policy — when he essentially makes the Russian argument on Crimea, when he doesn’t stand up for NATO or the European Union.”
When the two leaders sit down in Helsinki, Mr. Trump’s abiding desire to win over Mr. Putin will loom as a powerful dynamic.
Those who have studied Mr. Putin argue that he has gotten to know his American counterpart quite well from afar, a familiarity that will give him the upper hand at a summit meeting whose very existence is in many ways an achievement for the Russian president.
“Putin’s going to be incredibly well briefed, have a great background and knowledge about Trump, and as a former intelligence agent, the idea of manipulating Donald Trump comes naturally to him, whereas Trump assumes that he can walk into a room with anybody cold,” said Derek Shearer, a former United States ambassador to Finland who organized a 1997 summit meeting between Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin in Helsinki.
Given Mr. Trump’s distaste for reading briefing memos and impatience with extensive preparation sessions with advisers, it is unclear how he might respond to Mr. Putin’s attempts to win concessions.
“There’s something about Putin, with his macho image and the imperial trappings that he has built up in the 18 years since he came to power that appeals to Trump, and his own self-image,” said Alexander Vershbow, a former United States ambassador to Russia who helped prepare Mr. Clinton for his Helsinki summit meeting two decades ago.
Mr. Putin, he added, “is ready to lure him into many different traps.”
Mark Landler reported from Washington, and Julie Hirschfeld Davis from Helsinki, Finland. Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from Moscow.