President Donald Trump’s comments and actions in relation to Russia – and especially toward Russian President Vladimir Putin — continue to be remarkably conciliatory, considering Moscow’s documented attacks on America’s democratic institutions its violations of international norms and its repression at home.
Certainly some U.S. measures under the Trump administration have been contrary to Russian interests, even punitive in the case of sanctions. But Trump signed the sanctions legislation reluctantly, and overall his comments and actions have demonstrated a desire to embrace Russia.
The updated timeline below adds developments since July 10, 2018, chronicling publicly reported Trump comments and actions toward Russia since the 2016 U.S. presidential election—whether accommodationist or adversarial or defying easy classification. Some may view certain steps as acts of rapprochement aimed at a more cooperative relationship with Russia to fight common enemies and avoid dangerous escalation. Other observers will see the acts as incriminating evidence of a quid pro quo or a dangerous appeasement to an adversary who attacked and continues to attack America’s democratic institutions.
Are we missing anything? If so, tell us on Twitter at Just Security’s account.
Nov. 14, 2016 — In their first official phone call, President-elect Trump and Putin agree on the “absolutely unsatisfactory state of bilateral relations” between Russia and the U.S., according to the New York Times. The two leaders agreed to meet at some point in the future and “endorse” the idea of taking efforts “to normalize relations and pursue constructive cooperation on the broadest possible range of issues.”
Nov. 18, 2016 — 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, according to the Washington Post. In 2015, Flynn accepted payment from RT — a Russian news channel that had become a propaganda arm — to attend the station’s gala event in Moscow. Putin also attended the gala, and RT later published photos of the two dining next to each other.
Dec. 1 or 2, 2016 — 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. The White House first states that its purpose was to “establish a line of communication.” Kislyak later reports to superiors in Moscow 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, according to the Washington Post.
Dec. 12, 2016 — President-elect Trump officially nominates Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, spurring controversy because of Tillerson’s close relationship with Russia. As CEO of Exxon Mobil, Tillerson had engaged in joint ventures with Rosneft, a state-backed Russian oil company, and had received the Order of Friendship from Russia in 2013, according to the New York Times.
Dec. 13, 2016 — Senior Trump Advisor Jared Kushner meets with Sergey Gorkov, then-chairman of Russia’s government-owned Vnesheconombank (VEB) and a close ally of Putin, at Russian Ambassador Kislyak’s request. The bank was placed on the sanctions list following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. In June 2017, the Washington Post reports that VEB says the meeting was conducted in relation to Kushner’s family real estate business. However, the Trump White House later maintains it was a diplomatic meeting in which Kushner was acting in his role as soon-to-be presidential adviser. Kushner testifies on July 24, 2017 to the Senate and House Intelligence Committees that Kislyak had recommended the meeting because Gorkov “had a direct relationship with” Putin. Kushner said they discussed the general poor state of US-Russian relations but that they didn’t touch on any specific policies nor on Obama-era sanctions against Russia. “At no time was there any discussion about my companies, business transactions, real estate projects, loans, banking arrangements or any private business of any kind.”
Dec. 29, 2016 — 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, according to the Washington Post. Nearly one year later, Flynn pleads guilty to lying to investigators regarding his conversations with the Russian ambassador.
Dec. 29, 2016 — Within four hours of the Obama White House’s announced sanctions against Russia for election interference, Trump issues a written statement in response saying, “It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things.”
Dec. 30, 2016 — Following Russia’s surprise turnaround decision not to respond to the U.S. sanctions in-kind, Trump tweets: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!” 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.”
Jan. 3-4, 2017 — In a series of tweets, Trump disparages the intelligence from U.S. agencies scheduled to brief him on their findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
Jan. 6, 2017 – May 9, 2017 — Jan. 6 is the date then-FBI Director James Comey helped brief Trump on Russian election interference, and May 9 was his final day as FBI Director. In his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey is asked (by Senator Joe Manchin) whether 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.”
Jan. 6-7, 2017 — After the briefing by intelligence officials, Trump acknowledges that the Russian government may have been involved in the hacking of Democratic National Committee computers, but says it didn’t affect the outcome of the election because Russia didn’t gain access to voting systems, and says he wants to improve relations with Russia.
Jan. 11, 2017 — George Nader, a Lebanese-American fixer and advisor to the United Arab Emirates, convenes a secret meeting in the Seychelles at the “behest” of UAE Crown Prince Mohammed, according to the New York Times. The meeting is between Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater and a Trump supporter (and brother of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s then-nominee to be secretary of education), and Kirill Dmitriev, a Russian wealth fund manager with ties to President Putin. The apparent purpose of the meeting is to test Russia’s commitment to Iran and to set up a communication channel between President-elect Trump and Moscow, according to the Washington Post.
Prince testifies before Congress in November that the meeting with Dmitriev was a “chance-encounter,” and that he traveled to the Seychelles to pursue a “business opportunity” with potential customers from the UAE, who had suggested that he meet with a Russian businessman staying at the same hotel, Vox reports. However, according to reporting by ABC News and the Washington Post, Special Counsel Robert Mueller reportedly has new evidence and a cooperating witness in Nader, who is allegedly testifying that the meeting was preplanned to set up communications between the Trump transition team and Moscow so that they could “discuss future relations between the countries.” The New York Times also reports that Kirill Dmitriev had met Trump associate Anthony Scaramucci at the 2017 Davos forum, after which Scaramucci criticized the Obama administration sanctions on Russia with a TASS reporter.
Jan. 11, 2017 — At a news conference, Trump says, “I think it was Russia” that hacked the 2016 U.S. election, but then diminishes its significance, adding, “But I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people.” He draws comparisons to other incidents of hacking, and suggests that the DNC left itself open to hacking and deserves some blame. Trump also says, “Russia will have much greater respect for our country when I am leading it than when other people have led it,” according to CNN.
Post-Jan. 20, 2017 — In the “early weeks” of the administration, top Trump administration officials task State Department staff “with developing proposals for the lifting of economic sanctions,” until their efforts are blocked by State Department officials and members of Congress, according to reporting by Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News.
Jan. 20-early Feb., 2017 — National Security Advisor Michael Flynn advocates for closer military communication with Russia to fight ISIS. According to several current and former Pentagon sources cited by the Daily Beast, Flynn suggests that a military communications channel originally established to prevent in-air collisions be expanded for other purposes that could have approached “outright cooperation” with Russia. Both the Pentagon and Centcom oppose Flynn’s idea.
Jan. 26-Feb. 13, 2017 — 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 2016. Yates warns the White House Counsel that Flynn’s statement 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 30 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)
Feb. 6, 2017 — In a Super Bowl interview with Bill O’Reilly, Trump says he respects Putin and dismisses the host’s characterization of the Russian president as a “killer.” “There are a lot of killers,” Trump says. “Do you think our country is so innocent?
Feb. 14, 2017 — The New York Times reports that Russia has deployed a cruise missile in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force (INF) treaty signed by President Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev. 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 Trump is asked about the violation in a February 24 interview with Reuters, he says, “To me, it’s a big deal,” and adds that he “would bring it up” with Putin “if and when we meet.” The State Department reiterated the alleged violation in its April 2017 report and in December 2017, released a strategy to counter the alleged violations, according to the Arms Control Association.
March 21, 2017 — The State Department announces that Secretary Rex Tillerson will not attend his intended first NATO meeting in Brussels on April 5-6, and will instead stay in the U.S. to join Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping 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, according to Reuters. Subsequently, the State Department offers new dates to reschedule the NATO meeting, and Tillerson attends.
March 31, 2017 — Tillerson meets with NATO leaders in Brussels. In his remarks, Tillerson reiterates the frequent U.S. exhortation over the years that allies increase their defense spending, but seems to take it a step further, saying: “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.”
April 2-27, 2017 — In an interview on April 2, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley says: “Certainly I think Russia was involved in the U.S. election.” On April 5, Haley criticizes Russia for obstructing UN action on Syria and for supporting Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Haley 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?”
However, during a working lunch on April 24 with UN Security Council ambassadors including Haley, Trump jests, “Now, does everybody like Nikki? Because if you don’t … she can easily be replaced,” according to the Washington Post. Further, on April 27, Secretary of State Tillerson sends UN Ambassador Haley an email instructing her that, from then on, her comments should be “re-cleared with Washington if they are substantively different from the building blocks, or if they are on a high-profile issue,” according to the New York Times.
April 6, 2017 — In response to a reported chemical attack perpetrated by the Assad regime, the Trump administration launches a military attack on a Syrian-government airfield near Homs from which the chemical weapons attack reportedly was launched, according to NBC News. In an interview with Fox News, National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster suggests Russia may have known about the chemical attacks in advance saying: “I think what we should do is ask Russia, how could it be, if you have advisers at that airfield, that you didn’t know that the Syrian air force was preparing and executing a mass murder attack with chemical weapons?”
April 23, 2017 — In an Associated Press interview, Trump expresses strong support for far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in upcoming French elections; Le Pen is supported by Putin and promises to remove France from the EU, a long-term goal for Putin. Le Pen had also visited Trump Tower in January, according to AP and Politico.
May 10, 2017 — Secretary of State Tillerson meets with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Ambassador Kislyak and says the U.S. would no longer require Russia to unfreeze the construction of an American consulate in St. Petersburg before considering handing back seized Russian diplomatic compounds in Maryland and New York as part of the Obama sanctions for election interference. The statement represented a reversal of the position staked out two days prior by Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon, the Washington Post reports.
May 10, 2017 — During an Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Ambassador Kislyak, Trump tells the Russian officials that he had fired the “nut job” FBI director (James Comey) who was investigating Russian election interference, according to the New York Times. Trump also says he had faced “great pressure” because of Russia, which had now been relieved. Additionally, Trump discloses highly classified information to the Russian officials. The intelligence was provided by Israel, which had not authorized the U.S. to share it, according to the Washington Post. The intelligence centered on Syrian extremist bomb-making plans, and was obtained in part through highly classified cyber operations, the disclosure of which “infuriated” Israeli officials, according to the New York Times. Israel subsequently changes its intelligence sharing protocols with the United States. No U.S. press are allowed into the Oval Office meeting, but Trump does allow TASS, the Russian state-owned agency, according to the Washington Post. Trump does not disclose to the press that Kislyak attended the meeting until TASS publishes photographs showing him in the room; the White House release following the meeting only mentions Lavrov. In a later interview, National Security Advisor McMaster refuses to confirm that Russian interference was discussed, even when asked directly about it.
May 10, 2017 — Following the meeting with 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.”
May 25 – 26, 2017 — Arriving in Europe with Trump, top White House economic advisor Gary Cohn tells reporters that the U.S. is “looking at” the future of sanctions on Russia. When pressed on what the current U.S. position is, he says: “Right now we don’t have a position.” The following day, Cohn counters that statement, saying the U.S. will not ease sanctions on Russia and, “if anything, we would probably look to get tougher.”
May 25, 2017 — In Europe, Trump chastises NATO leaders for their “chronic underpayments” to the alliance and fails to reaffirm U.S. commitment to Article 5 – the collective defense clause of the NATO agreement – promising only to “never forsake the friends that stood by our side” in the wake of Sept. 11 (a statement later labelled by the administration as an affirmation of Article 5). According to Politico, several Trump advisors, including National Security Advisor McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, are surprised by the omission, having endeavored to include language supporting Article 5 in Trump’s remarks prior to the summit. Additionally, 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 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,” according to the New York Times.
May 26, 2017 — 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.
May 30, 2017 — In a press briefing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer is asked about 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.”
June 5 – 7, 2017 — On June 7, U.S. officials say that FBI investigators sent to assist Qatar 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, according to CNN. The fake article, posted June 5th, said that Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin 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.
June 6, 2017— Reacting to the news of Arab states cutting ties with Qatar, 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!” 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 13, 2017 — 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 the administration has communication channels open with Russia and does not want to block those avenues with “something new,” signaling that the White House would prefer a softer version of the bill. This sentiment is echoed by a senior administration official who suggests that the administration would work with House Republicans to “defang” the bill should it pass the Senate, Politico reports. The bill passes on June 15 by a vote of 98-2.
June 13, 2017 — 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.
June 20, 2017 — The Senate bill issuing new sanctions against Russia stalls in the House on grounds that it may not adhere to a constitutional requirement that any legislation raising revenues must originate in the House, not the Senate, Politico reports. 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.”
June 24, 2017 — 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 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 causes of their concern. In addition, “dozens of state officials told NBC News they have received little direction from Washington about election security.”
June 26, 2017 — The Associated Press reports that Trump’s is pressing to meet with Putin in July, when both leaders are attending a multinational summit in Germany. According to the AP, 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.
Late June 2017 — Trump reportedly halts the CIA’s covert action program to arm and train rebel groups fighting the Assad regime in Syria, a move sought by Russia and undertaken ahead of the planned meeting with Putin in July, according to the Washington Post. In a press release following the Post report nearly a month later, Senator John McCain criticizes the decision, saying it is “playing right into the hands of Vladimir Putin” and that “making any concession to Russia, absent a broader strategy for Syria, is irresponsible and short-sighted.”
July 3, 2017 — Secretary of State 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. An official and two others say Tillerson also conveyed that the Trump administration will focus on defeating the Islamic State – a priority reinforced by State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, who last week told reporters that “the reason the United States is involved in Syria is to take out ISIS.”
July 3, 2017 — According to The Guardian, Trump orders aides to come up with possible concessions to offer at his first bilateral meeting with Vladimir Putin during the G-20 summit in Germany. The Associated Press reports that, 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. The Guardian reports there is “strong resistance in the NSC and State Department to one-sided concessions aimed simply at improving the tone of U.S.-Russian relations.”
July 5, 2017 — 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 Putin, will be allowed to be present in the meeting with him and Putin, according to the Daily Beast. The Brookings Institute’s Thomas Wright comments on Twitter, “It would be absolutely inexcusable if Fiona Hill was not in the meeting w[ith] Putin. Stunning this is even up for discussion.” During the first bilateral meeting between Trump and Putin, neither Hill nor National Security Advisor McMaster are included in the bilateral meeting during the G-20 summit.
July 5, 2017 —In brief remarks at Joint Base Andrews before departing for the G-20 summit in Germany, Secretary of State Tillerson says that the United States is open to military cooperation with Russia in Syria. 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.”
July 7, 2017 — Trump and Putin hold their first bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Germany. The meeting, which lasts 2 hours and 20 minutes, includes a discussion on Syria, cybersecurity, North Korea, and Ukraine. During the meeting, Trump presses Putin about Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential elections, according to CNN. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov tells reporters, “The U.S. president said that he had heard clear statements from Putin about this [Russia’s interference with the U.S. election] being untrue and that he accepted those statements.” However, Secretary of State Tillerson presents a different view, saying that after Putin denied interfering in the U.S. election, the two presidents instead focused on how to move the U.S.-Russia relationship forward.
Tillerson adds that the two presidents agreed to organize talks “regarding commitments of non-interference in the affairs of the United States and our democratic process.” Additionally, the two Presidents agree to designate senior officials from both countries to collaborate on a framework aimed at preventing future political interference, as part of a bilateral commission that also would discuss counterterrorism and the resolution of the conflict in Ukraine, the Washington Post reports. Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, scoffs: “Forming a working group on cyber interference in elections with Russia is akin to inviting North Korea to lead one on nonproliferation.” Additionally, Trump and Putin reach a “de-escalation agreement” affecting regions of southern Syria along the Jordanian border, where the U.S. and Russia both have strategic interests.
During a dinner at the G-20 summit, Trump and Putin hold an “informal” second meeting with only a Kremlin interpreter present, according to the New York Times. The previously undisclosed meeting is later described by Trump in an Oval Office interview with the Times as lasting possibly “15 minutes” despite reporting by the Times and CNN that it lasted an hour. Trump tells the New York Times in the interview that the two leaders exchanged “pleasantries” and discussed Russia’s adoption policy. Russia prohibited adoptions by U.S. parents after Congress’s passage of the Magnitsky Act in 2012, which sanctions Russian officials accused of human rights violations.
Week of July 17, 2017 — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph F. Dunford Jr. and Secretary of State Tillerson give a members-only briefing in the House and Senate focused on “prospects for cooperation” with Russia, the Washington Post subsequently reports. The officials say that as part of their strategy to defeat ISIS, the administration is relying on increased Russian cooperation to ensure pro-Assad forces don’t interfere with the U.S.-led coalition’s operations.
July 25, 2017 — The House overwhelmingly passes a sanctions bill ordering new financial sanctions against Russia in retaliation for its alleged interference in the 2016 presidential elections and against Iran and North Korea over their weapons programs. The bill includes a requirement for Congress to sign off on any rollback of Russia sanctions. House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, who brokered the deal with GOP House leaders, states: “This is a critical moment when our allies are uncertain about where this administration stands with respect to Russian aggression.” The White House does not immediately offer a position on the bill. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders says: “He [Trump] has no intention of getting rid of them, but he wants to make sure we get the best deal for the American people possible. Congress does not have the best record on that … He’s going to study that legislation and see what the final product looks like.”
July 27, 2017 — The Senate passes the House sanctions bill with only two senators opposing. Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, praises the bill as a “strong signal to President Putin.” The overwhelming House and Senate votes are veto-proof. White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci tells CNN that Trump “may veto the sanctions” to “negotiate an even tougher deal against the Russians.” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckerbee Sanders declines to confirm whether Trump will sign the legislation: “We’re going to wait and see what that final legislation looks like and make a decision at that point.”
July 30, 2017 — Responding to the threat of new U.S. sanctions, Vladimir Putin orders the American diplomatic mission in Russia to reduce its staff by 755 employees to about 455, the most severe such cut since the Cold War, according the New York Times. Initially, the State Department calls the move “regrettable and uncalled-for.” But on Aug. 10, Trump appears to make light of the staff-reduction order, saying he is “very thankful” to Putin for helping the U.S. to cut its payroll: “We’re going to save a lot of money.”
July-August 2017 — Trump floats an idea to aides that he said he got after speaking with Putin — to stop military exercises with South Korea in hopes that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might reciprocate by moderating his behavior. The Wall Street Journal reported that Defense Secretary James Mattis talked Trump out of the idea, but the president still ordered that the exercises be conducted with a low-profile, without the usual press releases and briefings.
Aug. 2, 2017 — Behind closed doors, Trump signs a bipartisan sanctions bill responding to the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Trump releases a statement upon signing the legislation, calling it “flawed” and noting his concern that the bill “improperly encroaches on Executive power, disadvantages American companies, and hurts the interests of our European allies.” Trump says the bill encroaches on the Executive’s ability to “negotiate . . . good deals for the American people” but that he will sign it for the sake of “national unity.” He also draws a distinction with Iran and North Korea, which also are sanctioned by the law, stating with regards to Russia: “We hope there will be cooperation between our two countries on major global issues so that these sanctions will no longer be necessary.” Secretary of State Tillerson criticizes Congress for “the way” it adopted the legislation, saying neither the president nor I were very happy about that . . . ” and “we can’t let it take us off track of trying to restore the relationship [with Russia].”
Aug. 31, 2017 — In response to Russia’s order for the U.S. to reduce its diplomatic presence in Russia by cutting its mission staff, the Trump administration orders the closure of three Russian diplomatic facilities by Sept. 2: the Consulate General in San Francisco, a chancery annex in Washington, DC, and a consular annex in New York. Still, White House Spokeswoman Sarah Sanders insists the White House wants to “halt the downward” spiral between the countries.
Sept. 21-22, 2017 — Facebook announces it will provide congressional investigators with information on more than 3,000 ads purchased by Russian entities linked to the Internet Research Agency troll farm in St. Petersburg during the 2016 election cycle. The Wall Street Journal reports that Facebook previously had provided Special Counsel Robert Mueller with information about the Russian ad purchases including copies of the ads, details about the accounts that bought them, and the targeting criteria used by the accounts. Facebook had said Sept. 6 that the ads were connected to “about 470 inauthentic accounts and Pages in violation of our [Facebook’s] policies.”
In response to suggestions that Russian “troll farms” used the social media platform to post on divisive issues and influence the 2016 elections, Trump tweets, “The Russian hoax continues, now it’s ads on Facebook. …”
Oct. 1, 2017 — The Trump administration fails to meet its first deadline for implementing the Russia portion of the sanctions package signed in August. By Oct. 1, the administration was to have authorized agencies to identify and produce a list of Russian defense and intelligence entities with which individuals and companies would be prohibited from doing business, according to ABC News. Violations would be subject to sanctions. The list of Russian entities isn’t released for several more weeks, prompting bipartisan criticism from Senators John McCain and Ben Cardin: “The delay calls into question the Trump administration’s commitment to the sanctions bill . . . They’ve had plenty of time to get their act together . . . there does not appear to be a significant effort to engage our allies in Europe and to lead an effort to increase pressure on Moscow.”
Oct. 31, 2017 — The Trump administration finally turns over a list of Russia-connected entities, reflecting the government’s assessment of people or organizations “that are part of, or operating on behalf of, the defense or intelligence sectors of the government of the Russian Federation.” Under the law, sanctions are slated to begin on Jan. 29 for persons who “knowingly engage in a significant transaction” with such entities.
Nov. 11, 2017 — Trump and Putin have an informal conversation on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Da Nang, Vietnam. ABC News reports that they discussed a joint statement on Syria and the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections. Aboard Air Force One, Trump tells reporters, “Every time he [Putin] sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it . . . I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country.” Trump later tweets, “When will all the haters and fools out there realize that having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing . . . I want to solve North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, terrorism, and Russia can greatly help!” The next day, Trump walks back his earlier remarks, which essentially questioned the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections, saying, “I believe in our agencies. I’ve worked with them very strongly,” according to the New York Times.
Dec. 13, 2017 — The State Department notifies congressional committees that it will approve the sale of antitank missiles and launch units to Ukraine estimated at $47 million. Sec. Mattis and Tillerson reportedly presented a decision memo to the president advocating the sale; the Washington Post reported that the president’s senior aides, including Mattis, Pompeo, Haley and Tillerson led an effort to convince Trump, and to their surprise he ultimately approved the decision but “on the condition that the move be kept quiet and made without a formal news release.”
Jan. 10, 2018 — The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Democratic staff issues a report on Russian assaults on democracy at home and in Europe that assesses responses thus far. The report cites the slow startup of efforts to counter Russian disinformation through the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, even though Congress allocated up to $60 million a year in additional funding, and the failure to appoint permanent leadership for the center. “The Administration’s lackadaisical approach to staffing these positions and providing leadership to U.S. efforts to fight Kremlin disinformation stands in sharp contrast to the accelerating nature of the threat,” according to the report.
Jan. 19, 2018 — Defense Secretary James Mattis unveils the National Defense Strategy, which shifts the primary U.S. focus away from combating terrorism to rising threats posed by Russia, China, and rogue nations such as North Korea and Iran, the New York Times reports. In his remarks at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, Mattis takes direct aim at Russia, saying, “To those who would threaten America’s experiment in democracy: If you challenge us, it will be your longest and worst day.” Mattis’ remarks stood in contrast to Trump’s presentation of the National Security Strategy in December, in which he says the U.S. “will attempt to build a great partnership with those [Russia and China] and other countries, but in a manner that always protects our national interest.”
Jan. 29, 2018 — As part of the sanctions package passed in August, the administration is required by law to begin sanctioning individuals conducting significant business with a list of Russian defense and intelligence entities. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert says that the administration will not immediately implement sanctions and that the law is already having its intended effect of reducing defense acquisitions from Russia. “If the law is working, sanctions or specific entities or individuals will not need to be imposed because the legislation is, in fact, serving as a deterrent,” Nauert says. She does not give a specific timeframe for when the administration might begin imposing sanctions. Peter Harrell, a sanctions official in the Obama administration, notes the decision was announced “on the same day that CIA Director Mike Pompeo said that Russia will target the 2018 midterm elections.”
The sanctions law also required the administration to release a list of oligarchs linked to Putin. On Jan. 29, the Treasury Department releases an unclassified list of 114 senior Russian political figures and 96 business people. However, the Treasury Department notes that the list wasn’t a “sanctions list” and the individuals listed do not “meet the criteria for designation under any sanctions program.” Administration officials later admit that the list was largely lifted from Forbes Magazine’s 2017 list of wealthiest Russians.
Feb. 13, 2018 — In testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, top U.S. intelligence officials state that they have not been specifically directed by the president to stop future Russian election interference, in response to questions by Sen. Jack Reed. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats also states, “There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 US midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations.” He’s joined at the hearing by CIA Director Mike Pompeo, National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers and FBI Director Christopher Wray.
Feb. 16, 2018 — Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicts 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities on charges of conspiracy to defraud the United States, according to the Washington Post. Three of the defendants face bank and wire fraud charges and five are accused of aggravated identity theft. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein says, “The defendants allegedly conducted what they called information warfare against the United States, with the stated goal of spreading distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general,” NBC News reports. The indictment serves as the first charges by the Special Counsel directly focused on acts relating to the 2016 presidential campaign. Trump emphasizes the lack of connection between the allegations and the impact on the presidential election tweeting, “Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President.”
Feb. 27, 2018 — Admiral Mike Rogers, the head of U.S. Cyber Command, tells the Senate Intelligence Committee in a hearing that he has not been directed by Trump to counter Russian cyber operations against American elections, though he said he tries to work within his existing authority, CNN reports. Rogers also testifies, “They have not paid a price that is sufficient to change their behavior.” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders rejected Rogers’ characterizations, saying the administration is “taking a number of steps” and that details would be shared in coming months.
March 4, 2018 — Despite being allocated $120 million dollars since 2016 to counter foreign efforts to interfere in U.S. elections, the State Department has not spent any of the funds, according to the New York Times. The money was allocated for counter-messaging campaigns against Russian and Chinese propaganda. The delay is criticized by members of Congress with Senator Robert Menendez stating: “It is well past time that the State Department’s Global Engagement Center gets the resources Congress intended for it to effectively fight Kremlin-sponsored disinformation and other foreign propaganda operations.” State Department officials say they expect to receive the funding in April and have committed an additional $1 million from other areas of the department to “kick-start the initiative quickly.”
March 8, 2018 — Despite numerous reports that Russia will attempt to influence the 2018 U.S. midterm elections using its cyber arsenal, the U.S.’s top military commander in Europe, Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, tells lawmakers that the U.S. doesn’t have a clear understanding of Russia’s capabilities or a streamlined approach to combat the Russian threat more broadly. “I don’t believe there is an effective unification across the interagency, with the energy and the focus that we could attain.” In response to Scaparrotti’s statement that any military jurisdiction related to elections interference is in the portfolios of Cyber Command, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the Joint Staff, Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii noted that, “There doesn’t seem to be anyone taking the lead on this and that is a cause of concern to many of us,” CNBC reports.
March 15, 2018 — Prime Minister Theresa May says the U.K. has concluded it was “highly likely” that Russia is responsible for the use of a military-grade nerve agent in an attempted murder of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury on March 4, CNN reports. Trump initially tells reporters that he will condemn “Russia or whoever it may be” once “we get the facts straight.” But the Trump administration issues a joint statement with the leaders of France, Germany, and the U.K. condemning the Salisbury attack and concluding there was “no plausible alternative explanation” for the attack other than Russian responsibility.
March 15, 2018 — The Trump administration announces it will meet the congressional mandate to implement Russian sanctions legislation passed in August and reveals Russian efforts to penetrate the U.S. energy grid, according to CNN. The sanctions include five entities and 19 individuals, including those already indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, in February. According to Reuters, the individuals sanctioned did not include oligarchs and other Russian officials close to Putin, prompting Democratic and Republican leaders to criticize the relatively restrained response. Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the administration’s sanctions were “a grievous disappointment and fall far short of what is needed to respond to that attack on our democracy, let alone deter Russia’s escalating aggression, which now includes a chemical weapons attack [against the Skripals] on the soil of our closest ally.” Brian O’Toole, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council , noted that the sanctions “didn’t hit Putin’s power structure.” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin says additional sanctions against Russian government officials and oligarchs may be imposed but did not give a time frame, according to Reuters.
March 20, 2018 — Trump congratulates Putin on his re-election in a phone call and discusses a potential summit with his Russian counterpart, despite questions about the legitimacy of the campaign, Russia’s alleged efforts to manipulate the 2016 U.S. election, and the recent attempted murder in the U.K. of Sergei Skripal. Several news outlets report the summit was Trump’s suggestion. In the call, Trump abandoned specific warnings from his national security advisers, including a section in his briefing materials in all-capital letters stating “DO NOT CONGRATULATE.” When Putin reportedly told Trump that some U.S. administration officials had tried to prevent the call from happening, Trump called them “stupid people,” the New York Times reported, citing a person with direct knowledge of the conversation.
The OSCE report assessing the Russian election says, “Restrictions on the fundamental freedoms of assembly, association and expression, as well as on candidate registration, have limited the space for political engagement and resulted in a lack of genuine competition,” and that “choice without real competition, as we have seen here, is not real choice,” CNN reports. CNN notes that President Barack Obama also called Putin to congratulate him on a similarly disputed 2012 election, and reports that it is the eighth phone call between Trump and Putin in the 15 months since Trump’s inauguration, about the same number as Obama conducted with Putin during his final two years in the White House. Still, Trump’s call to Putin comes under scrutiny from both sides of the aisle. Senator John McCain releases a statement saying: “An American president does not lead the free world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections.”
March 26, 2018 — Following the leads of the U.K. and 14 members of the European Union, Trump orders the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats, including 12 people identified as intelligence officers, as well as the closure of the Russian Consulate in Seattle. In a statement, the White House says: “Today’s actions make the United States safer by reducing Russia’s ability to spy on Americans and to conduct covert operations that threaten America’s national security.”
According to an in-depth Washington Post report, “when the expulsions were announced publicly, Trump erupted” because the total expulsions by the U.S. were higher than Germany or France. “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.’” Trump had previously instructed his aides, “‘We’re not taking the lead,’” and now he “was furious that his administration was being portrayed in the media as taking by far the toughest stance on Russia.”
April 3, 2018 — When asked by reporters during a press conference with the presidents of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania on whether the U.S. shares the Baltic countries’ concerns about Russia, Trump says, “Nobody has been tougher on Russia than I have,” but then also emphasizes the importance of “getting along” with Russia. His comments precede outgoing National Security Advisor McMaster’s address on April 4 at the Atlantic Council, in which he warns against the Russian threat and says “Russia brazenly and implausibly denies its actions, and we have failed to impose sufficient costs.”
April 6, 2018 — The Treasury Department imposes sanctions on 38 Russian individuals and companies, including seven Russian oligarchs and the companies they control, 17 government officials, a state-owned Russian weapons-trading company and its subsidiary, and a Russian bank. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin says that the sanctions are a response to a number of “malign activities” by the Russian government, including the occupation of Crimea, assistance to the Assad regime in Syria, subversion of Western democracy, and malicious cyber activities. The sanctions prevent the Russian oligarchs from traveling to the United States or doing business with U.S. companies. Additionally, the sanctions prevent foreign individuals from doing business on their behalf.
April 8 – 13, 2018 — Following a reported chemical attack on the besieged rebel-held Syrian town of Douma, east of Damascus, Trump tweets, “President Putin, Russia, and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad.” On April 13, the U.S., U.K., and France launch airstrikes against three chemical weapons facilities in Syria. In a statement, Trump says Putin has failed to keep his promise to ensure Syria was free of chemical weapons.
April 15, 2018 — On CBS News’ Face the Nation, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley states “Russian sanctions will be coming down. 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.” However, the White House walks back Haley’s statements and tells the Russian Embassy in Washington that there will be no new sanctions. The Trump Administration publicly characterizes Haley’s announcement as a misstatement. White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow says, “There might have been some momentary confusion” in reference to Haley’s statement. “With all due respect, I don’t get confused,” Haley tells Fox News. The Washington Post reports that “President Trump had become upset about public discussion of new sanctions after Haley spoke on CBS’s ‘Face The Nation.’ Trump told aides that he was not ready to impose the new penalties, and the White House decided to characterize Haley’s remarks as an error.”
April 20, 2018 — Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin meets with Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov to discuss the recent sanctions targeting several Russian oligarchs with ties to Putin, including Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska. On April 23, the U.S. Treasury reveals a path for lifting sanctions against the large metals company Rusal should Deripaska divest from the company and its owner, the EN+ Group.
Late April 2018 – Trump suggests to French President Emmanuel Macron, during a meeting at the White House, “Why don’t you leave the EU?” according to a June 28 account in the Washington Post that cited two unnamed European officials. Trump further said the U.S. would offer France more favorable bilateral trade terms than the bloc gets as a whole, according to the Post. The White House declined to comment on the report. Macron didn’t confirm the exchange, saying, “Things said behind closed doors should stay behind closed doors,” and that he is committed to Europe. During the same visit, Trump told Macron that the EU is worse than China on trade, according to CNN. The comment extends Trump’s attacks on traditional U.S. alliances with European nations at a time when Putin also is taking actions that appear intended to divide the West.
May 1, 2018 — The Trump administration amends its Russia sanctions program to allow aluminum giant Rusal to escape the blacklist, according to the Wall Street Journal. Rusal’s owner, the En+ Group, pledges that its majority shareholder, Deripaska, will reduce his holdings and relinquish his board seat. On May 25, Deripaska officially resigns from his role at Rusal.
May 7, 2018 — In response to questions on the occasion of Putin’s inauguration, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders says of Trump, “The president congratulates him and looks forward to a time when we can hopefully have a good relationship with Russia.” Regarding the mass arrests of demonstrators in dozens of Russian cities two days earlier, she says, “The United States believes everyone has a right to be heard and assemble peacefully.”
June 1, 2018 — The Wall Street Journal reports that the White House is in the early stages of planning a summit between Trump and Putin, despite the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies that Putin directed the Russian interference into the 2016 U.S. election. It would be their third meeting, after sideline conversations in Germany in July 2017 and Vietnam in November 2017.
June 8, 2018 — Trump calls on two occasions on the same day to re-admit Russia to the Group of 7 major economies. Russia had been ousted from the then-G-8 over its seizure of Crimea in 2014. Trump makes the argument to reporters as he is leaving for the G-7 meeting in Charlevoix, Canada, and again at the summit, where he blamed President Barack Obama for Putin’s decision to invade Crimea. The move is one of several that day that creates a chasm between the U.S. and its allies in the grouping. On the same day, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warns during a conference in France that U.S. officials “continue to see Russian targeting of American society in ways that could affect our midterm elections.”
June 8, 2018 — Trump tells G-7 leaders during a dinner, which was closed to media, that Crimea is Russian because everyone there speaks Russian, two diplomatic officials told BuzzFeed. The incident is not the first time Trump has repeated Russian talking points on Crimea, according to the Washington Post. Russia seized and illegally annexed the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014, and most countries of the world have refused to recognize the territory as Russia‘s. Buzzfeed reported that one of the officials also said Trump questioned why G-7 leaders were siding with Ukraine in the struggle with Russia.
June 8-9, 2018 – At the same G-7 summit, during a meeting with the other leaders, Trump segues to talking about NATO, and says, “NATO is as bad as NAFTA,” according to Axios. Trump has persistently criticized the North American Free Trade Agreement as a disaster for the U.S.
June 9, 2018 – Trump comments during the G-7 that Russia has invested heavily in Crimea since annexing the peninsula in 2014, according to Bloomberg News. “They’ve spent a lot of money on rebuilding it,” he said.
June 9, 2018 – Trump, via Twitter messages after leaving the G-7 summit early, directly contradicts and criticizes Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, refuses to sign a joint statement that had been crafted and agreed to by all the G-7, and calls his Canadian host “very dishonest and weak.” Trump’s early departure from the summit, which the White House had signaled two days earlier, leaves traditional U.S. allies to discuss environmental issues on their own while he proceeds to his meeting with North Korean Kim Jong Un.
June 12, 2018 — Russia’s Foreign Ministry praises Trump’s decision to call off a war game with South Korea scheduled for August. According to Reuters, the ministry says the move is needed to stop provocations and ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula. [Recall entry on July-Aug 2017: Trump told aides he got the idea of stopping military exercises with South Korea after speaking with Putin.]
June 27, 2018 – During a campaign rally in North Dakota, Trump excoriates the EU amid a trade dispute over tariffs, saying the EU “was set up to take advantage of the United States.”
June 28, 2018 — Trump again issues a tweet casting doubt on the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. “Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election!” Trump writes on Twitter.
June 28, 2018 – The White House and the Kremlin announce that Trump and Putin will meet on July 16 in Helsinki, several days after a scheduled summit of NATO leaders in Brussels July 11-12.
June 28, 2018 – The Trump administration appears prepared to cut a deal with Russia and Israel to keep Bashar al-Assad in power in Syria in exchange for Russian agreement to curb Iran’s power in the region, according to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. The arrangement effectively would abandon Syrian opposition fighters who had been allies of the U.S. in the fight against ISIS. “Trump’s willingness to accede to Russian power in Syria — and to give up hard-won U.S. gains — troubles many Pentagon officials, but they seem to be losing the argument,” Ignatius writes.
June 29, 2018 – Ahead of his summit with Putin, Trump suggests the issue of Russia’s annexation of Crimea is negotiable, despite four years of U.S. policy refusing to recognize the seizure and resulting sanctions. Asked whether the U.S. would accept Russia’s claim to the peninsula, Trump tells reporters on Air Force One, “We’re going to have to see.”
June 29, 2018 – The Washington Post reports that the Defense Department is considering a large-scale withdrawal or transfer of American troops stationed in Germany, after Trump expressed surprise earlier in the year at the size of the U.S. presence – about 35,000 active-duty troops – and indicated an interest in removing them. Germany provides a base for U.S. forces to repel a potential invasion by Russia and as a staging area for U.S. military operations in Africa and the Middle East. A White House National Security Council spokesman said the NSC didn’t request the assessment, but that such “analysis exercises” are “not out of the norm.”
July 1, 2018 – John Bolton, Trump’s new national security advisor, declines to rule out a negotiation on Crimea (see transcript of interview on CBS’s Face the Nation). At first, he affirms that it’s not the U.S. position but then says, “We’ll see… The president makes the policy. I don’t make policy.”
July 2, 2018 – White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, asked about Trump’s and Bolton’s statements on Crimea, says the U.S. does “not recognize Russia’s attempt to annex Crimea,” and that U.S. sanctions “will remain in place until Russia returns Crimea to the Ukraine.” Her use of “the” in front of Ukraine suggests an unfamiliarity with the country’s proper name or a deliberate slight, as the formulation was used by Russians during Soviet times to denote their control over the territory. The same mistake has been made by previous U.S. officials, including once by Obama.
July 2, 2018 – The New York Times confirms earlier news reports that Trump in June sent letters of rebuke to NATO allies including Canada, Belgium, Germany, and Norway that they are not contributing enough financially to the alliance and that the situation “is no longer sustainable for us.” The letters, which may have been sent to a dozen allies, don’t specify what steps the U.S. might take in response.
July 5, 2018 – U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison, asked about a June 29 report in the Washington Post that the Pentagon is considering reducing its force in Germany at Trump’s behest, tells reporters in a briefing that “there is nothing being said at all about the troop alignment in Germany or anything that would change” basing arrangements there. Additionally, Hutchison says that she expects unanimous agreement among the 29 NATO member countries on proposals including for improved readiness to repel Russian threats to the alliance’s eastern flank.
July 5, 2018 – In a particularly fiery campaign speech in Montana, Trump mocks criticism of Putin’s KGB background. “Putin is fine. He’s fine. We’re all people,” Trump says. Speaking hours after Ambassador Hutchison’s briefing for reporters on the pending NATO summit (see earlier July 5 entry), Trump laments trade deficits with Europe and then says, “on top of that, they kill us on NATO.” Trump also uses the occasion to promote better ties with Russia. “Getting along is a really nice thing,” he says on Russia and Putin. “It’s a really smart thing.”
July 6, 2018 – Trump reiterates to staff in recent days a desire to cut U.S. spending on Europe’s defense if NATO allies don’t contribute more. The president often derides the EU to European leaders, saying it is “worse than China.” Some White House officials worry that Putin takes advantage of Trump’s inexperience and lack of detailed knowledge about issues and at the same time feeds the U.S. president’s grievances, according to the Washington Post. Trump often speaks to Putin as a kind of confidant, in contrast to his sometimes bullying exchanges with allies such as the leaders of Canada, the U.K., and Germany, in which he often cuts them off to make his point, senior U.S. officials tell the Post.
July 9, 2018 – Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas cautions that Trump shouldn’t meet alone with Putin during the upcoming summit, citing what Moran says was Russian news media’s mischaracterization of discussions that he and others in a U.S. congressional delegation held with Russian leaders during a visit to Moscow the previous week. “If our experience is any indication of what the president will find, it will be denial, hostility, blaming others and long and tedious responses,” Moran tells the Wall Street Journal. “The Russians are skilled propagandists.”
July 10, 2018 – Embarking on his nearly weeklong trip to Europe for the NATO summit and his meeting with Putin, Trump tells reporters that discussion with Putin “may be the easiest of them all.”
July 11, 2018 – Trump kicks off the NATO summit in Brussels with harsh remarks against Germany, during a breakfast meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Trump says Germany is “a captive of Russia” and “totally controlled by Russia” because it supports the $11 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would bring gas directly from Russia to Germany, bypassing Eastern European countries and potentially hurting Ukraine, which gains revenue from transit fees for a pipeline that crosses its territory to supply European countries. Trump also issues a hostile tweet asking, “What good is NATO …?” and demanding all member nations increase their defense spending to 2 percent of GDP “immediately,” despite the agreed NATO goal of reaching that level by 2025. In a closed meeting with counterparts, he even demands a level of 4 percent. The changed demand suggests to close observers that Trump may be setting an unrealistic benchmark to undermine the alliance because he knows it would fail. (Not even the United States spends 4 percent of its GDP on the military. The latest estimate has the U.S. proportion at 3.5 percent.) Congressional leaders in Washington and experts express shock and concern that Trump’s approach is weakening NATO in the face of threats from Russia.
July 11, 2018 – A joint declaration by NATO leaders at their summit, signed by Trump and the other 28 leaders in the alliance, strongly criticizes Russia for its “aggressive actions, including the threat and use of force to attain political goals,” and says Russia has “breached the values, principles, and commitments which underpin the NATO-Russia relationship.” Paragraphs 6 and 7 of the 29-point declaration contain extensive lists of Russian offenses, from arms-control violations to election interference, cyber attacks, the nerve agent attack in the U.K., and disinformation campaigns. The declaration also defends “successive rounds of enlargement” as improving the security of the alliance and “the entire Euro-Atlantic region,” in response to frequent criticism that NATO expansion contributed to alienating Russia after the Cold War.
July 12, 2018 – In a press conference at the close of the NATO summit, Trump says, “The United States’ commitment to NATO is very strong,” but then adds, “I hope that we’re going to be able to get along with Russia,” and repeats his assertion that his coming meeting with Putin “may be the easiest of them all.” Trump characterizes Putin as “a competitor. He’s been very nice to me the times I’ve met him. I’ve been nice to him … he’s not my enemy. Is he a friend? No, I don’t know him well enough. But the couple of times that I’ve gotten to meet him, we got along very well … He’s not my enemy. And hopefully, someday, maybe he’ll be a friend.”
July 13, 2018 – Trump echoes nationalist forces in Europe, many supported by Russia, in criticizing British Prime Minister Theresa May and EU leaders during an interview with the British tabloid The Sun. Speaking of Europe, for example, he said, “I think allowing millions and millions of people to come into Europe is very, very sad. I think you are losing your culture.” He criticized May for seeking to maintain certain trade and border links with the EU as the U.K. exits the bloc in 2019, saying she ignored his advice and that if she proceeds in that direction, the U.S. wouldn’t agree to a bilateral trade deal.
July 15, 2018 – Asked during a weekend in Scotland, in an interview with CBS News, who he would say is America’s biggest foe internationally, Trump first lists the European Union, rather than Russia or China, the two nations that the Defense Department has called the biggest military threats to the U.S. “Well I think we have a lot of foes. I think the European Union is a foe, what they do to us in trade. Now you wouldn’t think of the European Union but they’re a foe,” Trump says. “Russia is a foe in certain respects. China is a foe economically, certainly they are a foe. But that doesn’t mean they are bad. It doesn’t mean anything. It means that they are competitive.”
July 15, 2018 — The FBI arrests Russian gun-rights advocate Maria Butina, charging her with conspiracy to act as an agent of the Russian Federation. The Justice Department alleges she cultivated high-level contacts in the U.S., including with the National Rifle Association, at the direction of a top official in the Russian government.
July 16, 2018 – On the morning of the Helsinki meeting with Putin, Trump tweets, “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” The Russian Foreign Ministry tweets, “We agree.”
July 16, 2018 – Trump defers to what he called Putin’s “extremely strong and powerful” denials of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, over the unequivocal findings of U.S. intelligence agencies. In the joint news conference in Helsinki after a private two-hour meeting between the presidents and a further meeting with aides, Trump says “I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” Trump’s opening remarks make no criticism of Russian actions in Ukraine, in undermining European democracies, or in the 2016 U.S. elections. Trump reiterates that he considers Russia a “competitor” and adds that he means that as a “compliment.” Asked about his tweets that morning reiterating his criticism of the Mueller probe as a “witch hunt” and whether he holds Putin accountable for anything in the deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations, Trump says, “I hold both countries responsible,” and “I think we’re all to blame.” Trump goes on to cite “an incredible offer” from Putin for the two countries to work jointly on an investigation of 12 Russian military intelligence officers indicted three days earlier by a grand jury in the Mueller probe for hacking the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016. Such an arrangement essentially would subject U.S. investigators to questioning by Russian counterparts in an investigation of the Russian government. Putin also said that, in exchange, Russia would expect to question Americans whom he didn’t identify that it suspects “have something to do with illegal actions on the territory of Russia.” Additionally, Putin, when asked whether he wanted Trump to win the 2016 election and whether he directed any of his officials to help accomplish that, responded through a translator, “Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal.” (Observers note that Putin may have heard only the first question about whether he wanted Trump to win.) The performance spurs intense backlash in the U.S., including among some of Trump’s supporters in Congress.
July 17, 2018 – Trump attempts to back off on part of his statements during the Helsinki press conference with Putin, but then equivocates again. In Helsinki, he had said his aides, including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, told him “they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin – he just said it’s not Russia. I will say I don’t have any reason why it would be.” Trump now says he meant to say, “I don’t have any reason why it wouldn’t be.” He then emphasizes that any Russian interference wouldn’t have changed the election results, and adds, “I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place. It could be other people, also. There are lot of people out there.”
July 18, 2018 – Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov tells reporters that Trump and Putin reached “important verbal agreements” during their one-on-one in Helsinki, including on arms control, and that the Russian president had offered “specific and interesting” proposals for cooperation on Syria. U.S. officials, however, had little to no information about the discussion. White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders provided only general topics discussed, including “Syrian humanitarian aid, Iran’s nuclear ambition, Israeli security, North Korean denuclearization, Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea, reducing Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals, and of course your favorite topic, Russia’s interference in our elections.” In his interview, Antonov also expresses dismay over criticism of the Helsinki meeting in the U.S., picking up on Trump’s frequent references to the Mueller investigation as a “witch hunt.” Meanwhile, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders says the U.S. is considering allowing Russian officials to question former U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul and U.S.-born investor Bill Browder, who have been vocal critics of Putin. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, however, called the idea, “absolutely absurd.” Separately, in an interview with Fox News, Trump casts doubt on the U.S. commitment to NATO’s Article 5 pledge that the alliance will come to the defense of any of its members by questioning the value of defending its newest member, Montenegro. Trump calls Montenegrins “very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and, congratulations, you’re in World War III.” The unusual description raises questions of whether Putin shaped Trump’s perception of the Balkan nation, which experienced a coup attempt by Russian nationalists in November 2016.
July 19, 2018 – Trump invites Putin to the White House this fall for a follow-up to the Helsinki meeting. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, speaking at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, expresses surprise when told of the news. Earlier in the day, Trump tweeted that he is “looking forward” to meeting again with Putin to “begin implementing” work they had discussed during their meeting. Trump tells CNBC later, however, that he has been “far tougher on Russia than any president in many, many years” and that, if his dealings with Russia don’t “work out, I’ll be the worst enemy he’s ever had.” Meanwhile, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders reverses her statement of the previous day about potential Russian questioning of current or former U.S. officials, saying Trump opposes the idea.
July 20, 2018 — The Department of Defense announces an additional $200 million of training, equipment, and advisory services to build the defensive capacity of Ukraine’s military. The new spending brings the total U.S. security sector assistance to Ukraine to more than $1 billion since 2014.
July 24, 2018 – A Kremlin aide expresses reticence about a Putin visit to the White House, saying the two leaders can meet elsewhere. Trump tweets that he’s “very concerned that Russia will be fighting very hard to have an impact on the upcoming Election. Based on the fact that no President has been tougher on Russia than me, they will be pushing very hard for the Democrats. They definitely don’t want Trump!”
July 25, 2018 – National Security Adviser John Bolton issues a statement saying the meeting with Putin at the White House has been 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.”
July 25, 2018 – In his written testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says, “I want to assure this committee that the United States does not, and will not, recognize the Kremlin’s purported annexation of Crimea … There will be no relief of Crimea-related sanctions until Russia returns control of the Crimean Peninsula to Ukraine. To this end, today we are formalizing United States policy of non-recognition by releasing a Crimea Declaration.” Alluding to a similar statement from a then-acting secretary of state refusing recognition of the Soviet Union’s seizure of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the declaration states, “As we did in the Welles Declaration in 1940, the United States reaffirms as policy its refusal to recognize the Kremlin’s claims of sovereignty over territory seized by force in contravention of international law. In concert with allies, partners, and the international community, the United States rejects Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea and pledges to maintain this policy until Ukraine’s territorial integrity is restored.”