Last week, Donald Trump congratulated Vladimir Putin on winning a rigged election, over the strenuous objections of his senior staff. During that same conversation with the Russian leader, the president declined to mention the fact that a former Russian spy and his daughter — and at least 38 British bystanders — had recently been poisoned by a nerve agent that’s exclusively produced by the Russian government.
After that call, Trump defended these actions by arguing that “getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing,” and that Putin’s government could “help solve problems with North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, ISIS, Iran and even the coming Arms Race [sic].”
But Russia failed to solve any of those problems over the weekend. And now, the president’s patience has (ostensibly) worn out: On Monday, Trump ordered the expulsion of 60 Russians from the United States, including 12 whom the U.S. government believes to be intelligence officers. The order also shutters the Russian consulate in Seattle, a move motivated by the institution’s proximity to a U.S. naval base.
Trump intends the broader order to “root out Russians actively engaging in intelligence operations against the country,” and to project solidarity with America’s NATO allies in the wake of this month’s nerve-gas attack in Salisbury, England, senior White House officials told the New York Times. America’s response to the Salisbury attack was slower than that of Germany, France, or Britain, the last having expelled 23 Russian diplomats earlier this month. But Trump’s punitive action is nonetheless robust — and thus, difficult to square with the tenor of his public remarks about Russia and its authoritarian leader.
And yet, this discrepancy between the president’s rhetoric on Putin and his administration’s policies toward Russia has been a consistent feature of this White House’s Russia policy. Even as Trump has stubbornly insisted on giving Moscow the benefit of the doubt on its role in the 2016 election — and floated forming a joint cybersecurity task force with the government that had just launched cyberattacks against both major U.S. political parties — his administration has approved lethal arms sales to anti-Russian forces in Ukraine, imposed new sanctions on Russian organizations and individuals suspected of election interference, and slaughtered dozens of Russian soldiers in Syria.
Donald Trump has betrayed many of his 2016 voters substantively, while paying unceasing tribute to them, rhetorically. This has proven more than satisfactory to most of his supporters — but the Kremlin might well prove an exception.