Donald Trump’s commitment to avoiding the antagonization of Russian officials on Twitter—a courtesy he reserves for no one else—was conspicuous months ago. Despite his reported fondness for those who “return fire” and engage their critics in public fora, Trump seems determined to turn the other cheek when it comes to Russia. This week, Moscow’s efforts to provoke and agitate the president finally succeeded. And yet, rather than take his aggravation out on the Kremlin, he vomited his frustrations out all over Congress.
The remarks by the Russian prime minister following Trump’s decision to sign into law new sanctions on Moscow, backed by veto-proof majorities in Congress, represents the most melodramatic attempt to force the president to lose his cool yet. “The US establishment fully outwitted Trump,” wrote Vladimir Putin’s prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev. “The Trump administration has shown its total weakness by handing over executive power to Congress in the most humiliating way.”
This isn’t the first occasion in which operatives linked to the Kremlin used language seemingly intentionally calibrated to generate an emotional response from the American president, but it was the most successful. But rather than defend his honor against Russian slights, Trump essentially confirmed the accuracy of Medvedev’s taunt. “Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low,” the president wrote. “You can thank Congress, the same people that can’t even give us HCare.”
Compounding the cognitive dissonance in Trump’s broadside against Congress was the fact that Vice President Mike Pence read this tweet amid his tour of some of the most threatened former Soviet Republics. “Russia seeks to redraw international borders by force, undermine democracies of sovereign nations and divide the free nations of Europe,” Pence said after a meeting with the leaders of the three Baltic states. “A strong and united NATO is more necessary today than at any point since the collapse of communism a quarter-century ago, and no threat looms larger in the Baltic states than the specter of aggression from your unpredictable neighbor to the east.” Pence declined to address the threat to the peace in Europe posed by Congress.
Trump deserves some credit for finally acknowledging that Russo-American relations have deteriorated to a dangerous point, but only very little. The Russian Reset Trump hoped to engineer (the third consecutive attempt at rapprochement with Moscow) was over before it truly began. The president has made every effort to avoid the fact that Moscow’s geopolitical interests conflict with those of the United States.
Trump insulted the nation he leads in February when he made a bizarre attempt to strike a moral equivalence between the government of the United States and the murderous cabal in the Kremlin, but those conciliatory words were never followed on with action. By the time Moscow briefly closed the “de-confliction” hotline in Syria to protest Trump’s April airstrikes on Russia’s vassal in Damascus; the Third Russian Reset was already dead. “Washington’s move deals a significant blow to the Russia-U.S. relations, which are already in a deplorable shape,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
Russia appeared to hold out some hope that Trump may yet be useful, but he was not. Institutional pressures inside the United States and the structure of its alliances abroad prevented Donald Trump from offering Russia any major concessions—with the glaring exception of giving up on anti-Assad rebels in Syria, thrusting them into the arms of more radical militias. The sanctions relief Moscow anticipated never materialized. Its diplomatic facilities, shuttered by Barack Obama following Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election, remain closed. American armed forces continue to stream back into Europe, reinforcing NATO’s increasingly tense frontier.
The Republican Congress’ decision to strip the president of the authority to administer Russian sanctions has less to do with a fear of Trump’s policies than it does an acknowledgment of the president’s inexplicable refusal to call Russia the threat that it is (when he’s not reading from a TelePrompTer).
The Trump administration is now compelled by law to demonstrate that Russian behavior has changed before lifting sanctions imposed on Moscow after its invasion of Ukraine, but the White House has always said it would not lift those sanctions absent total Russian withdrawal. The administration has angered Moscow by greenlighting the sale of liquid natural gas to Russian clients in Eastern and Central Europe, and they have committed to providing Poland with anti-ballistic missile technology over the Kremlin’s objections. It’s Trump’s actions as much as Congress’s that are aggravating Moscow. It’s Trump’s unfailing rhetorical support for Moscow that rendered him untrustworthy.
Surely, Robert Mueller’s probe into potential misdeeds involving the Trump campaign, the Trump Organization, and Russia have left the president feeling cornered. Moreover, no president would allow Congress to steal power away from the White House without protest. But, taken as a whole, the Trump administration’s Russia policy isn’t as controversial as are the president’s reckless tweets. Maybe lawmakers and the public wouldn’t be so concerned about Trump’s relationship with Russia if he just kept his mouth shut.