Unlike President Donald J. Trump, who grudgingly signed a package of sanctions against Russia for meddling in last year’s presidential election, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did not equivocate when he confronted his Russian counterpart about the scandal.
Tillerson, who was in the Philippines for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum, had an aside with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
“We talked about it in the discussion we had with Minister Lavrov … and trying to help them understand just how serious this incident had been and how seriously it had damaged the relationship between the U.S. and the American people and the Russian people,” Tillerson said.
The secretary of state added he told Lavrov the election meddling had “created serious mistrust between our two countries and that we simply have to find some way to deal with that.”
Russia has consistently maintained it did not interfere in the election – the goal was to undermine the presidential candidacy of Democrat Hillary Clinton – but Republicans and Democrats in Congress believe otherwise.
Last month, Congress passed a bill punishing Russia for its interference and making it harder for Trump to ease sanctions on the government of President Vladimir Putin, the Independent newspaper of Britain reported.
Although he signed the measure, Republican Trump made it clear he disagreed with the action taken by the GOP-controlled Congress.
Indeed, unlike the signings of executive orders that have taken place under the glare of television lights and with much fanfare, this one occurred behind closed doors.
In a statement afterward, the president said the measure “remains seriously flawed” and infringes on his powers to shape foreign policy.
But given that he has consistently declined to categorically say Russia meddled in last year’s presidential race, and has gone so far as to publicly belittle the ongoing congressional investigations, Congress had no choice but to put its foot down.
“As president, I can make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress,” Trump said.
The White House said the president’s opposition stemmed from the bill’s failure to grant him sufficient flexibility on when to lift sanctions.
But his critics view his objections as just one more sign that he’s too eager to pursue closer ties to Russia. They also contend he wants to protect the former Cold War foe from penalties designed to punish Moscow for its actions in Ukraine, election meddling and other troublesome behavior.
Russia is dismissive of any suggestion that it interfered in the U.S. election and has reacted to the sanctions package by ordering the U.S. embassy in Moscow to reduce its staff in the country by 755 employees.
Reacting to the impending expulsions, Tillerson said he told Foreign Minister Lavrov the Trump administration had not made a decision regarding a response.
The White House should not take the expulsion lying down. Last year, former President Barack Obama ordered 35 Russian diplomats to leave the country, ordered the closing of two Russian compounds and imposed other sanctions.
Any wavering on the part of the Trump administration to punish Russia for its cyberattack on the American election system will serve to embolden this country’s enemies. It will be seen as a sign of weakness.
During last year’s campaign, Trump told his supporters he would be the toughest president in this nation’s history in dealing with its enemies.
Yet, he seems to lose his nerve when it comes to confronting Putin.
The administration has set Sept. 1 as the date for responding to Russia’s expulsion of the 755 American Embassy employees. The world will be watching.
The president should take his cues from his secretary of state who hit exactly the right note during his meeting with the foreign minister.
“We have our differences, we’re going to have to continue to find a way to address those,” Tillerson said.
Trump should demonstrate to America’s friends and foes alike that there are lines not to be crossed when it comes to protecting the homeland.