Over the weekend, a big scoop from The Washington Post over Trump expelling Russian diplomats was seemingly lost in the madness of the Syria strikes and the Michael Cohen revelations, but in light of this morning’s report from the New York Times, it’s instructive to revisit the meat of the story:
The president, who seemed to believe that other individual countries would largely equal the United States, was furious that his administration was being portrayed in the media as taking by far the toughest stance on Russia.
His briefers tried to reassure him that the sum total of European expulsions was roughly the same as the U.S. number.
“I don’t care about the total!” the administration official recalled Trump screaming. The official, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Growing angrier, Trump insisted that his aides had misled him about the magnitude of the expulsions. “There were curse words,” the official said, “a lot of curse words.”
On the heels of these expulsions, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley (who effectively is also Secretary of State now that Rex Tillerson is gone) announced a new round of Russian sanctions on Sunday. Per the NYT:
President Trump was watching television Sunday when he saw Nikki R. Haley, his ambassador to the United Nations, announce he would impose fresh sanctions on Russia. The president grew angry, according to an official informed about the moment. As far as he was concerned, he had decided no such thing.
It was not the first time Mr. Trump has yelled at the television over something he saw Ms. Haley saying. This time, however, the divergence has spilled into public in a remarkable display of discord that stems not just from competing views of Russia but from larger questions of political ambition, jealous, resentment, and loyalty.
A White House official rebuked Haley by saying her statement came as a result of “momentary confusion.” The UN Ambassador then went on Fox News a few hours later, telling Dana Perino “with all due respect, I don’t get confused.” Because this is the Trump administration and personality matters infinitely more than policy, Trump’s new economic adviser, Larry Kudlow was tasked to put out the fire, telling the NYT, “She was certainly not confused, I was wrong to say that—totally wrong.”
Kudlow followed up with a statement that should go on the Trump administration’s headstone: “As it turns out, she was basically following what she thought was policy. The policy was changed and she wasn’t told about it, so she was in a box.” The policy that Kudlow said Haley was following came from a document distributed by the Republican National Committee titled “White House talking points.” Here’s the key excerpt:
We also intend to impose specific additional sanctions against Russia to respond to Moscow’s ongoing support for the Assad regime, which has enabled the regime’s atrocities against the Syrian people.
The WaPo piece provides important context to help us read between the lines of the NYT report. Trump was incensed about being portrayed as going hard on Russia, and the rest of his administration was clearly acting in accordance with longstanding U.S. foreign policy against Putin’s regime. The “policy change” that Kudlow spoke of was almost certainly Trump overruling his foreign policy team about another strong stance against the Kremlin. This whole ordeal is beyond bizarre, and it prompts the question: why is Trump—a self-proclaimed tough guy—so concerned with looking like he’s being hard on a regime that interfered in the 2016 election to help him win?
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.