This week two advisors close to President Trump expressed diametrically opposed views on the administration’s policy on Russia.
Russia has allied itself with the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad. That government has repeatedly employed chemical weapons attacks against its own civilian population. In the most recent such incident (April 7) several dozen civilians in Douma died.
The United States, in alliance with Britain and France, hit Syria on April 13 with air strikes intended to impress on Assad the west’s determination to enforce international law against the use of such poisons.
On Sunday, April 15, the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said that the United States was about to impose new sanctions on Russia, by way of deterring any continuance of Russian support for Assad. She was quite specific, saying that she expected the new sanctions would be imposed the following day.
But nothing happened Monday. On Tuesday, April 17, a White House economic advisor, Larry Kudlow, said that Haley had gotten “ahead of the curve” and had suffered “momentary confusion” Sunday. As for when sanctions would be implemented, Kudlow would commit himself to nothing more than the proposition that they were under consideration.
So: have we just told a story about Haley and Kudlow, or one about Russia and the United States? That depends upon whom one asks.
Left Wing View
The left sees this as a story about Russia and the present administration in the US. On twitter, an anti-Trump figure with the evocative name “Trump Spurs Hurt” says that the promise of sanctions and then the absence of actual sanctions together constitute the most blatant evidence yet that Russian President Putin “owns Trump” and Trump’s Russia policy.
Margaret Hartmann, writing in New York Magazine, says that “for whatever reason” President Trump has “backed off of a plan that would have angered Vladimir Putin.”
The lesson Hartmann would have us draw from this is that “nothing White House officials say should be believed until it’s actually happening.”
Stephen Colbert, predictably, found humor in the situation, saying, “Nikki Haley does not get confused! Except for that one time she joined the Trump administration.”
Andrew Restuccia and Nancy Cook, sharing a byline in Politico, see this incident as part of a broader pattern. Trump surprises “his own closest advisors” with erratic changes in policy. This means that an official who is out of the loop when such a surprising change is made can appear confused (inaccurately, one hastens to add).
Right Wing View
In the dominant right wing view, this dust-up was not about geopolitics at all. It was an inside-the-palace matter, a clash of egos between courtiers. Still, most rightward commenters favored Haley over Kudlow and/or POTUS, New York over Washington, in their assessment of the in-fighting.
The National Review, for example, headlines a story on the matter, “Trump’s Not a Russia Pawn. He’s Just Erratic — Yet Again.” The story beneath that headline attributes to Trump the belief that “he’s just one good charm offensive away from defusing all tensions between the United States and Russia.”
Another discussion of the subject in NR says that the only times the U.S. strikes against Assad is when there is “video” of his attacks on his civilians, because the Trump administration has a muddled made-for-television notion of foreign policy. The author of that article, Jonah Goldberg, also offers as a bit of full disclosure the following, “My wife works for Haley.”
Noah Rothman, writing in the neoconservative flagship Commentary, says likewise that it is the White House that is confused, not the UN ambassador, and that the source of the confusion is “not hard to identify.” The President is a man of “indecision and ambiguity,” which given the importance of his office, creates blows that must be cushioned by the few closest to him.