Mixed messaging abounds as Trump-Putin talks near
President Donald Trump’s persistence in pursuing friendly ties with Vladimir Putin highlights a growing disconnect within his administration over Russia policy.
Trump speaks fondly of Putin and a desire for better relations with Moscow. The rest of his executive branch, however, remains critical and deeply suspicious of the Russian president and the Kremlin’s intentions.
The stark contrast in approaches has been thrown into sharp relief as Trump and Putin prepare for their summit in Finland on Monday, amid unremitting criticism of Russia from Trump’s State Department, Justice Department, Treasury Department and Defense Department.
That might be explained as a good cop-bad cop strategy with Russia. But the mixed messaging has left America’s friends and allies confused, particularly after a contentious NATO summit where Trump questioned the value of the alliance that Putin has long denounced and sought to weaken.
Just three days before the Helsinki summit, the Justice Department announced the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers in special counsel Robert Muller’s investigation into Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. That brings to 25 the number of Russians charged in the investigation. Trump has denied any collusion with Russia and has repeatedly cited Putin’s denials of any Russian interference in the campaign, suggesting there is little or nothing he can do to demand accountability. The Kremlin has denied that the Russian state interfered in the election.
The indictments were unsealed just hours after Trump again referred to Mueller’s inquiry as a “witch hunt” and after the president told reporters at a news conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May, “I think I would have a very good relationship with Putin if we spend time together.”
A day earlier in Brussels, Trump did say he would raise the election issue with Putin, but also said: “I don’t think you’ll have any ‘Gee, I did it, I did it. You got me!’ There won’t be Perry Mason here, I don’t think. But I will absolutely, firmly ask the question.”
Trump also has expressed little interest in continuing the harsh U.S. criticism of Russian activities in Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere, and of Russia’s human rights record.
Contrast that with the messaging of the State Department.
Under Trump, the department has issued regular stinging critiques of Russia, including on human rights and press freedom. Those have been sustained since former CIA Director Mike Pompeo was installed as top U.S. diplomat in April.
Pompeo has also been steadfast in his support of NATO.