Trump reverses Nikki Haley: Forget new sanctions on Russia over Syria

“You will see that Russian sanctions will be coming down,” said Haley yesterday on “Face the Nation.” “Secretary Mnuchin will be announcing those on Monday if he hasn’t already and they will go directly to any sort of companies that were dealing with equipment related to Assad and chemical weapons use.”


President Trump on Monday put the brakes on a preliminary plan to impose additional economic sanctions on Russia, walking back a Sunday announcement by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley that the Kremlin had swiftly denounced as “international economic raiding.”…

Administration officials said the economic sanctions were under serious consideration, along with other measures that could be taken against Russia, but said Trump had not given final authorization to implement them. Administration officials said Monday it was unlikely Trump would approve any additional sanctions without another triggering event by Russia, describing the strategy as being in a holding pattern…

Privately, another White House official said Haley got ahead of herself and made “an error that needs to be mopped up.”

But other administration officials expressed skepticism that Haley had merely misspoken. They said Haley is one of the most disciplined and cautious members of the Cabinet, especially when it comes to her public appearances. She regularly checks in with Trump personally to go over her planned statements before she sits for television interviews.

Did Haley screw up and misunderstand Trump’s position or did Trump change his mind about sanctions sometime between yesterday morning and this afternoon, when the story above broke? “The United States essentially has three Russia policies: the president’s, the executive branch’s and Congress’s,” said a foreign-relations prof to WaPo for a different story today, noting that Trump, his aides, and the Republicans and Democrats on the Hill all seem to display different levels of hawkishness towards Russia. It may be that some hawk in the White House leaned on Trump for guidance about sanctions, Trump said something vaguely committal, and that hawkish aide misinterpreted his intentions. If you prefer a more nefarious explanation, maybe that hawkish aide deliberately “misunderstood” the president’s ambivalence and told Haley that sanctions were a go hoping/expecting that once the new policy was announced publicly Trump would feel obliged to stand by it.

But the detail about Haley usually consulting with Trump before TV appearances leaves you to wonder. Did Trump … just change his mind overnight and hang her out to dry today? If you’re grasping for reasons to explain why he might have done that, let me suggest two. One possibility is that he got spooked when Russia blew up this morning at Haley’s talk of new sanctions, calling it “international economic raiding.” POTUS and Putin have been ratcheting up tensions in various ways over the past few months punctuated by the attacks in Syria on Friday night, risking total collapse of his long-delayed efforts to improve relations with Moscow. Maybe he saw their reaction to what Haley said, concluded that it was a bridge too far, and reversed himself to try to lower the tensions instead. Haley didn’t have the policy wrong, in other words. That’s just how the White House has to spin it to let Trump save face. Sometimes a deputy takes the fall for the boss.

Another possibility, though, is that the WaPo story linked above infuriated Trump and jolted him to change course. The headline is withering, almost deliberately provocative: “Trump, a reluctant hawk, has battled his top aides on Russia and lost.” The idea of losing in any context is intolerable to POTUS; the idea of losing in a test of wills with his own subordinates, which suggests weakness, must have sent him through the roof. I’m just speculating but it’s easy to see him stumbling across that piece, fuming at public perceptions that his aides are leading him by the nose on Russia, and deciding to cancel the sanctions just to prove that it’s false. It’d be the same dynamic that first got Steve Bannon into hot water with Trump when he landed on the cover of Time as “The Great Manipulator.” Do not take credit from the president. No one “manipulates” him; he sets the policy, not Nikki Haley or John Bolton. And so, poof — sanctions are up in smoke, just like that.

Or, of course, you could take the hardcore Russiagate-conspiracist line and believe that Putin dialed up Trump after he heard Haley mention sanctions, warned him to back off or else the kompromat would emerge, and suddenly sanctions were gone lickety split. Given that Trump just bombed his boy in Damascus, however limitedly, I’m going with one of the other theories.