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Timeline: Trump’s Acts of Appeasement/Accommodation to Russia [Updated]

 

 

I recently published a timeline called, “Russian Provocations and Dangerous Acts since January 20, 2017,” Below is a new timeline of publicly reported events of Donald J. Trump’s acts of accommodation toward Russia since the U.S. presidential election. Some readers may view several of these steps as acts of rapprochement to try to develop a more cooperative relationship with Russia, for example, to fight common enemies and avoid dangerous escalation. Other readers may view several of these steps as incriminating evidence of quid pro quo or a dangerous appeasement to an adversary who attacked and will likely attack again the U.S. democratic system.

Am I missing anything? If so, tell us over at Just Security’s or my Twitter account.

November 8-May 9: May 9 marks the final day that FBI Director James Comey serves in office. In his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey is later asked (by Senator Joe Manchin) whether President Trump showed “any concern or interest or curiosity about what the Russians were doing.” Comey responds that he does not recall any conversations with Trump about Russian election interference during the former FBI Director’s time in office. Comey is also asked (by Senator Martin Heinrich): “Did the President in any of those interactions that you’ve shared with us today ask you what you should be doing or what our government should be doing or the intelligence community to protect America against Russian interference in our election system?” Comey says he does not recall any conversation like that–“never.” (Politico – full transcript of testimony)

November 14: In their first official phone call, President-Elect Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin agree on the “absolutely unsatisfactory state of bilateral relations” between Russia and the U.S., and the two leaders agree to meet at some point in the future. (New York Times)

November 18: President-Elect Trump names retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as his National Security Advisor, stirring controversy in part because of Flynn’s ties to Russia. (Washington Post)  In 2015, Flynn accepted payment from RT – a Russian propaganda channel –  to attend the station’s gala event in Moscow. President Putin also attended the gala, and RT later publishes photos of the two dining next to each other.

Early-December: Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak meets with former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and Trump Senior Advisor Jared Kushner in Trump Tower. The meeting is not disclosed to the public until March 2017. According to the White House in March, its purpose was to “establish a line of communication.” (New York Times). It is later revealed that in the meeting, Kushner suggested setting up a secure channel between the Trump transition team and the Kremlin, to be hosted at the Russian embassy or consulate. (Washington Post)

December 12: President-Elect Trump officially nominates Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, drawing some controversy around Tillerson’s close relationship with Russia, having previously engaged in joint ventures with Rosneft, a state-backed Russian oil company, while CEO of Exxon-Mobil, and having received the Order of Friendship from Russia in 2013. (New York Times)

Mid-December (possibly the 13th or 14th, according to flight data reviewed by the Washington Post): Senior Trump Advisor Jared Kushner meets with Sergey Gorkov, chairman of Russia’s government-owned Vnesheconombank (VEB) and a close ally of President Putin, at Russian Ambassador Kislyak’s request. The bank was placed on the sanctions list following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. (New York Times)

December 29: Shortly after the White House notifies Russia of sanctions that the Obama administration will impose for election interference, Michael Flynn speaks with Russian Ambassador Kislyak. During the phone call, Flynn discusses the sanctions. According to several current and former officials who read transcripts of the call, Flynn told Kislyak that Russia should not overreact to impending sanctions for election interference because the Trump administration would be in a position to revisit the sanctions and change policy toward Russia. (Washington Post)

December 29: Within four hours of the Obama White House’s announced sanctions against Russia for election interference, President-Elect Trump issues a written statement saying “it’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things.” (Fox News Politics)

December 30: Following Russia’s surprise turnaround decision not to respond to the U.S. sanctions in kind, President-Elect Trump tweets: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!” (Twitter) Putin’s decision came as a surprise in part because Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had earlier said in  televised remarks, “Of course, we cannot leave these sanctions unanswered … Reciprocity is the law of diplomacy and international relations.” (ABC News).

January 11: The United Arab Emirates helps set up a secret meeting in the Seychelles between Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater and a Trump supporter (and brother of Betsy DeVos), and a Russian official close to President Putin whose identity is not disclosed. The apparent purpose of the meeting is reportedly to test Russia’s commitment to Iran and to set up a communication channel between President-Elect Trump and Moscow. Both the White House and Blackwater later deny that the meeting had a diplomatic purpose. (Washington Post)

January 11: At a news conference, President-Elect Trump says he “think[s] it was Russia” that hacked the 2016 U.S. election but diminishes its significance, adding “but I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people,” drawing comparisons to other incidents of hacking that have drawn less news coverage, and suggests that the DNC left itself open to hacking and deserves some blame. (CNBC)

Post-January 20: In the “early weeks” of the administration, “top Trump administration officials, almost as soon as they took office, tasked State Department staffers with developing proposals for the lifting of economic sanctions,” until their efforts were blocked by State Department officials and members of Congress (Yahoo News’ Michael Isikoff reporting with source on-the-record)    

January 20-early February: National Security Advisor Michael Flynn advocates for closer military communication with Russia to fight ISIS. According to several current and former Pentagon sources, Flynn suggested that a military communications channel established to prevent in-air collisions be expanded for other purposes. Both the Pentagon and CentCom oppose Flynn’s idea. (Daily Beast)

January 26-February 13: Acting Attorney General Sally Yates meets personally with White House Counsel Don McGahn about National Security Advisor Flynn’s conversations with Russian Ambassador Kislyak in December. Yates warns the White House Counsel that Flynn’s saying that he did not discuss sanctions with the Russian Ambassador is untrue and that in her view Flynn is accordingly vulnerable to being blackmailed by Russia. Yates is fired on January 30th for refusing to enforce the immigration ban. (ABC News). It is not until February 13 that Flynn is asked to resign following a Washington Post story revealing the meeting with Yates and the White House Counsel. (New York Times)(Washington Post)

February 14:The New York Times reports that Russia has deployed a cruise missile in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force (INF) treaty between the two countries. In congressional testimony, Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff states, “we believe that the Russians have deliberately deployed it in order to pose a threat to NATO and to facilities within the NATO area of responsibility.” The administration does not issue a public statement rebuking Russia. When President Trump is asked about the violation in a February 24 interview with Reuters, he says, “To me, it’s a big deal” and that he “would bring it up” with President Putin “if and when we meet.” (New York Times; Reuters)

March 17: German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits the White House for a meeting with President Trump. At the meeting, following a reporter’s request that they shake hands, Merkel asked Trump if he wanted to oblige the reporter for a handshake, but he ignores her. (BBC) Trump later tweets that it was a “GREAT” meeting, but reiterates that Germany has to invest more in NATO. (Twitter)

March 21:The State Department announces that Secretary Rex Tillerson will not attend his first NATO meeting in Brussels on April 5-6, and will instead stay in the U.S. to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Trump at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. During the same announcement, the State Department notes that Tillerson will travel to Russia in April, drawing criticism that the administration is prioritizing Russia over historical allies and the NATO alliance. (Reuters) Subsequently, the State Department offers new dates to reschedule the NATO meeting so that Tillerson can attend. (Reuters)

March 31: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with NATO leaders in Brussels. In his remarks, Tillerson says: “As President Trump has made clear, it is no longer sustainable for the U.S. to maintain a disproportionate share of NATO’s defense expenditures. Allies must increase defense spending.” (Washington Post)

April 2-27 Response to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley

  • April 2: In an interview, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley says: “Certainly I think Russia was involved in the U.S. election.” (Bloomberg)
  • April 5: UN Ambassador Nikki Haley criticizes Russia for obstructing UN action on Syria and for supporting Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. She says Russia made an “unconscionable choice” by opposing a resolution condemning the use of chemical weapons, and rhetorically asks “how many more children have to die before Russia cares?” (Fox News Politics)
  • April 24: During a working lunch with UN Security Council ambassadors including UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, President Trump jests, “Now, does everybody like Nikki? Because if you don’t … Otherwise, she can easily be replaced.” (Washington Post)
  • April 27: Secretary of State Tillerson sends UN Ambassador Haley an email instructing her that from then on her comments should bere-cleared with Washington if they are substantively different from the building blocks, or if they are on a high-profile issue.” (New York Times)

April 23: In an Associated Press interview, President Trump expresses strong support for far right candidate Marine Le Pen in upcoming French elections; Le Pen is supported by President Putin and promises to remove France from the EU, a long-term goal for Putin. Le Pen had also visited Trump Tower in January. [AP; Politico]

May 10: Secretary of State Tillerson meets with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Ambassador Kislyak and says the US would no longer require Russia to unfreeze the construction of an American consulate in St. Petersburg before it considered handing back seized Russian diplomatic compounds in Maryland and New York as part of the Obama sanctions for election interference – a reversal of the position staked out two days prior by Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon. (Washington Post)

On May 10: during the Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Ambassador Kislyak, President Trump:

  • tells the Russian officials that he had fired the “nut job” FBI director (James Comey) who  was investigating Russian election interference. Trump also says he had faced “great pressure” because of Russia, which had now been relieved. (New York Times)
  • discloses highly classified information to the Russian officials. The intelligence was  provided by Israel which had not authorized the U.S. to share it. (Washington Post) It is later revealed that the intelligence centered on Syrian extremist bomb-making plans, which was obtained in part through highly classified cyberoperations, the disclosure of which “infuriated” Israeli officials (New York Times) Israel subsequently changes its intelligence sharing protocols with the United States (New York Times; Voice of America)
  • does not allow any US press into the Oval Office, but does allow TASS, the Russian state-owned news agency (Washington Post)
  • does not disclose to press that Kislyak attends the meeting until TASS publishes photographs showing him in the room (NBC News); the White House release following the meeting only mentions Lavrov
  • apparently avoids the issue of Russian election interference (in an interview afterwards, National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster refuses to confirm that Russian interference was discussed, even when asked directly about it) (ABC News).

May 10: Following the meeting with President Trump, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov tells TASS: “At present, our dialogue is not as politicized as it used to be during Obama’s presidency. The Trump administration, including the President himself and the Secretary of State, are people of action who are willing to negotiate.” (TASS)

May 25-26: Arriving in Europe with President Trump, White House economic advisor Gary Cohn tells reporters the U.S. is “looking at” the future of sanctions on Russia. When pressed on what the U.S. position currently is, he says: “Right now we don’t have a position.” (ABC News) The following day, Cohn counters that position, saying the U.S. will not lower sanctions on Russia and, “if anything, we would probably look to get tougher.” (Politico)

May 25: In Europe, President Trump chastises NATO leaders for their “chronic underpayments” to the alliance and does not reaffirm U.S. commitment to Article 5 – the collective defense clause of the NATO agreement – promising only “never [to] forsake the friends that stood by our side” in the wake of September 11 (a statement later labelled by the administration as an affirmation of Article 5). According to Politico, several Trump advisors, including National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, were surprised by the omission, having endeavored to include language supporting Article 5 in Trump’s remarks prior to the summit. (Politico).  National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton says Russia was not discussed in a larger meeting between American and European officials, but that he could not speak for a meeting involving just President Trump, President of the European Council Donald Tusk, and President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker. Tusk later says he is “not 100 percent sure” he and Trump share a “common position, common opinion, about Russia.” (New York Times)

May 26: At a political rally the day after the Brussels meeting, German Chancellor Angela Merkel says: “The times in which we could rely fully on others — they are somewhat over. This is what I experienced in the last few days. We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands,” implying that Europe could no longer rely on a close alliance with the U.S. (New York Times)

May 30: In a press briefing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer is asked about President Trump’s reaction to Angela Merkel’s comments implying Europe could no longer rely on the U.S. He responds that Europe, “working in friendship with the U.S., the U.K., Russia, and other partners,” is precisely “what the President called for.” (May 30 press briefing). Trump reacts to Merkel’s comments on Twitter: “We have a MASSIVE trade deficit with Germany, plus they pay FAR LESS than they should on NATO & military. Very bad for U.S. This will change.” (Twitter)

June 5-7: On June 7, U.S. officials sent by the FBI to Doha to assist Qatar say they believe Russian hackers breached Qatar’s state news agency and planted a fake news story to instigate tensions between Qatar and Arab states, after which several Arab countries cut ties with the emirate. (CNN) The news story in question, posted June 5th, said that Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Al Hamad Al Thani praised Iran as an “Islamic power” and criticized U.S. policy; the story coincided with increased accusations that Qatar is financing terrorism. (CNN)   

June 6: Reacting to the news of Arab states cutting ties with Qatar, President Trump tweets: “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!” (Twitter). The same day, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert appears to take a more conciliatory stance, saying the U.S. is “grateful” to Qatar its long support of an American presence in the country, and adding: “We have no plans to change our posture in Qatar.” (June 6 briefing)

June 13: While testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Tillerson suggests that the Trump administration may not support a bipartisan bill that issues new, stronger sanctions against Russia for interference in the 2016 election. Tillerson notes that the administration has communication channels open with Russia and does not want to close those channels off with “something new,” signalling that the White House would prefer a softer version of the bill – a sentiment echoed by a senior administration official who suggest that the administration would work with House Republicans to “defang” the bill should it pass the Senate. The bill passes 98-2 on June 15th. (Politico)

June 13: While testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Attorney General Jeff Sessions says that although the intelligence community “appears” to agree that Russia interfered in the U.S. election, he “never received any detailed briefing on how hacking occurred or how information was alleged to have influenced the campaign.” Senator King followed up by asking, “You never sought any information about this rather dramatic attack on our country?” Sessions replied that he never did. (Politico – transcript)

June 20: The Senate bill issuing new sanctions against Russia stalls in the House on ground that it may not adhere to a constitutional requirement that any legislation raising revenues must originate in the House, not the Senate. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer releases a statement shortly thereafter, saying that what House Republicans are “really doing” is “covering for a president who has been far too soft on Russia.” (Politico)

June 24: Several government officials report that the Trump administration has not taken any significant steps to prevent future election interference, although experts suggest it is likely to recur in 2018. The officials point to President Trump’s lack of interest in the issue, his redirection of focus to the Obama administration’s actions, his failure to fill certain positions at the Department of Homeland Security, and a lack of funding to upgrade “critical [technological] infrastructure” as the root cause of their concerns. In addition, “dozens of state officials told NBC News they have received little direction from Washington about election security.” (NBC News)

June 26: The Associated Press reports that President Trump’s is “eager” to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in July, when both leaders are attending a multinational summit in Germany. According to the AP, President Trump and some officials are pushing for a full bilateral diplomatic meeting, while other administration officials support a more cautious approach to Russia, especially while the investigation into Russian election meddling is ongoing. (AP)

July 3: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tells the U.N. Secretary General in a private meeting that “what happens to Assad is Russia’s issue, not the U.S. government’s,” according to three diplomatic sources. According to the same official and two others, Tillerson also conveys that the Trump administration will focus on defeating the Islamic State – a priority reinforced by State Department spokewoman Heather Naubert, who last week told reporters that “the reason the United States is involved in Syria is to take out ISIS.” (Foreign Policy)

July 3: President Trump orders aides to come up with possible concessions to offer at his first bilateral meeting with Vladimir Putin during the G20 summit in Germany. (The Guardian) According to former officials, Trump’s push to obtain a list of “deliverables” and to arrange a formal meeting as opposed to a “pull-aside” has drawn opposition from officials in the State Department and the National Security Council, who feel that normalizing relations with Russia signals, among other things, acceptance of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014. (Associated Press) The Guardian reports there is “strong resistance in the NSC and state department to one-sided concessions aimed simply at improving the tone of US-Russian relations.” (The Guardian)

Jul 5: The White House is reportedly debating whether the National Security Council’s senior director for Europe and Russia Fiona Hill, who has critical views of  President Putin, will be allowed to be present in the meeting with President Trump and Putin. (Daily Beast). The Brookings Institute’s Thomas Wright says, “It would be absolutely inexcusable if Fiona Hill was not in the meeting w[ith] Putin. Stunning this is even up for discussion.”

July 5: In brief remarks at Joint Base Andrews before departing for the G20 summit in Germany, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says that the United States is open to military cooperation with Russia in Syria. (Washington Post) Tillerson states, “The United States is prepared to explore the possibility of establishing with Russia joint mechanisms for ensuring stability, including no-fly zones, on the ground ceasefire observers, and coordinated delivery of humanitarian assistance.” (State Department)

Image: TASS

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About the Author

is co-editor-in-chief of Just Security. Ryan is the Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law. He served as Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-16). You can follow him on Twitter (@rgoodlaw).