July 29, 2018
The Trump Administration Struggles to Defend Its Unruly Foreign Policy
The first hint of a turbulent day in U.S. foreign policy appeared in a one-sentence statement distributed by e-mail on Wednesday afternoon. Just a week after President Trump invited the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, to a second summit, in Washington, this fall, the White House announced that the meeting was being postponed.
“The President believes that the next bilateral meeting with President Putin should take place after the Russia witch hunt is over, so we’ve agreed that it will be after the first of the year,” the national-security adviser, John Bolton, said in a statement.
The Administration had faced scathing criticism from both Republicans and Democrats over the invitation, especially when details are still scant over what happened at the first summit, in Helsinki, on July 16th. The proposed Putin visit to the Oval Office would also have been on the eve of the high-stakes U.S. midterm elections, in which the Russians are reportedly meddling again. Last week, the director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, warned of “ongoing, pervasive efforts” by the Russians “to undermine our democracy.”
Messy Trump at work
More broadly, questions have grown since Helsinki—and other recent Trump summits with North Korea, the G-7 economic allies, and the twenty-eight other NATO nations—about Trump’s unruly U.S. foreign policy. The optics in Washington are not good.
Minutes after the Bolton statement, Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chastised President Trump during a hearing with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The President had “appeared submissive and deferential” alongside Putin, Corker said. He has deliberately “used false information to turn public opinion” against the NATO military alliance, a cornerstone of U.S. security. In meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Corker said the President had legitimized “one of the most ruthless leaders on the planet.” He had also taken to issuing “off-the-cuff” challenges to basic principles of the global order. For months, Trump has been “antagonizing our friends and placating those who clearly wish us ill.” The Helsinki summit is “perhaps the most troubling example of this emerging reality,” he said.
“From where we sit,” Corker, who is retiring, added, “it appears that, in a ready-fire-aim fashion, the White House is waking up every morning and making it up as they go.” America’s top lawmakers, he warned, “are filled with serious doubts” about the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. He appealed to Pompeo, saying, “Help convince us that those at the White House know what they are doing,” and “I can’t say it more forcefully. We really need a clear understanding as to what is going on.”
Senator Bob Menendez
Senator Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee, chimed in that—ten days after the Helsinki summit—U.S. lawmakers had heard more about what happened in the private session between Trump and Putin from Russian statements than from White House briefings. “We don’t know what the truth is, because nobody else was in the room where it happened,” the New Jersey Democrat said. In three hours of grilling, Pompeo repeatedly claimed that the President had fully briefed him. But he offered few insights and sidestepped straightforward questions about exactly what Trump and Putin discussed.
The White House appears to be scrambling to prove it has a coherent foreign policy. An hour before Pompeo testified on the Hill, the State Department issued the “Crimea Declaration.” The United States, it pronounced, will not recognize Russia’s strategic annexation of Crimea, in 2014, after its invasion of Ukraine. Citing the United Nations charter, dating back seven decades, the State Department noted, “No country can change the borders of another by force.”
That statement contradicts what Trump has repeatedly suggested since his first run for public office, in 2016. At the G-7 summit last month, in Canada, he reportedly said the majority of Crimea’s residents “would rather be with Russia.”
The Administration is also gyrating on Russian election interference in the United States. On Sunday night, the President tweeted that claims of Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election are “all a big hoax”—dismissing the unanimous findings of U.S. intelligence agencies and Coats’s statement last week. On Wednesday, in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Pompeo insisted that Trump fully accepts intelligence reports of Russian interference in 2016. He has “a complete and proper understanding of what happened,” Pompeo said. “I know—I briefed him on it for over a year,” when he headed the C.I.A.
Now America’s top diplomat, Pompeo claimed that the Administration had taken a “staggering” array of punitive actions against Russia, including the expulsion of sixty Russian spies, closing Russian consulates, and the sale of defensive military material to Ukraine. The President is “well aware of the challenges that Russia poses” today, Pompeo said. (Neither the Secretary nor the State Department speechwriters caught the erroneous reference in his opening statement to more than two hundred U.S. sanctions imposed “on Russian entities and individuals in the Trump Administration.”)
The Administration’s attempt to appear tougher on Putin may, in fact, be a response to Russian reticence. On Tuesday, the Kremlin showed tepid interest in the invitation to a second summit. “It seems to me that, for now, it would be right to wait for the dust to settle before having a businesslike discussion of all issues,” Putin’s foreign-policy adviser, Yury Ushakov, told the news agency Interfax. “But not now.”
Russia is not the only Trump foreign-policy issue facing questions. On Wednesday, Pompeo engaged in testy exchanges with several senators on issues ranging from Syria to arms-control treaties. The Administration is struggling, in particular, to prove that its bold decision to meet with the North Korean leader in Singapore last month is leading to progress. So far, there is still no formal agreement on what “denuclearization” actually means. Pressed on whether North Korea is still advancing its nuclear capabilities, Pompeo refused to answer the question—or say publicly that Pyongyang has at least frozen its weapons program. The Massachusetts Democrat Edward Markey charged that that there is “no verifiable evidence” that North Korea is keeping its promise.
“I am afraid that, at this point, the United States, the Trump Administration, is being taken for a ride,” Markey said. Pompeo, who has travelled to Pyongyang three times since Easter to take the lead on diplomacy, shot back, “Fear not, senator.” But he offered little detail to counter reports of White House frustration with North Korea’s stalling tactics.
“After nearly three hours, here is my takeaway,” Menendez said at the end of the session. “This Administration is increasingly not transparent. It’s not transparent as to what takes place at these summits . . . I really don’t believe, Mr. Secretary, you know what happened during the President’s two-plus-hour conversation with President Putin. And I really don’t know much more about the summit after sitting here for three hours than I did before.”
The Administration did make tentative progress on Wednesday to avert a trade war with America’s closest allies in Europe. In a surprise development, Trump and the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, announced new negotiations on trade barriers and a pledge, for now, to defer new tariffs. “While we are working on this, we will not go against the spirit of this agreement unless either party terminates the negotiation,” Trump said at a hastily organized appearance with Juncker.
Like the nuclear talks with North Korea and the summitry with Putin, however, the agreement with the European Commission on tariffs contains a big idea but is still short on details—with tough negotiations ahead. The Administration has yet to ink a final deal to resolve any major issue.