Trump and Russia sanctions


President Donald J. Trump presents himself as tough on Russia, but he opposed and complained about almost all sanctions.

This year, John Bolton published The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir. It covers his time as National Security Advisor for the Trump Administration, which was from April 9, 2018 to September 10, 2019.

When the book was published, the editors of the conservative National Review questioned the timing of the book, but wrote: “Bolton is a longtime friend of this publication and we take his honesty as a given. Any credibility contest between him and Donald Trump is laughably lopsided.”

In this passage, Bolton lists sanctions imposed on Russia during the Trump Administration. But, he writes, “… almost all of them occasioned opposition, or at least extended grumbling and complaining, from Trump himself.”

The Trump Administration had imposed substantial new economic sanctions on Russian citizens and entities in 2017, related to the Crimea annexation, adding to what Obama had done, as well as extending other sanctions; closed the Russian consulates in San Francisco and Seattle; expelled more than sixty Russian intelligence agents (operating in the US as “diplomats”) after Moscow’s attack on the Skripals; imposed sanctions for violating the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act, also required by the attack on the Skripals; sanctioned Russia’s Internet Research Agency, an arm of Russia’s cyber-offense machinery; and penalized over three dozen Russian officials for violations of US Syria-related sanctions. As new violations were uncovered, further sanctions were imposed on each person and corporate entity involved.

Trump touted these as major achievements, but almost all of them occasioned opposition, or at least extended grumbling and complaining, from Trump himself. One example involved the sanctions related to the chemical-weapons attack on the Skripals. This statute had only recently been used for the first time, after Kim Jong Un ordered his half brother murdered in Malaysia via chemical weapons, and after the Assad regime’s chemical weapons attacks in Syria. There was criticism that the sanctions imposed were not sweeping enough, but Trump objected to having any sanctions at all. Trump finally approved sanctions before the Helsinki summit but postponed announcing them until the summit ended. We explained to Trump that these sanctions were only the first in what was likely a series, since the applicable statute provided for ever-more-stringent sanctions if the accused nation did not provide convincing evidence it had given up chemical and/or biological weapons, including allowing international inspectors to verify compliance. No one believed Russia would do so. When Helsinki concluded, State announced the sanctions, since no new decision was required. Trump, upon hearing the news, wanted to rescind them. I wondered if this entire crisis was caused by Rand Paul’s recent visit to Moscow, which generated significant press coverage for him and where the Russians doubtless stressed that they were very unhappy about the sanctions. This was ironic, with libertarian politicians like Paul so worried about the Kremlin’s tender sensibilities. Hearing of the controversy, Mnuchin called Pompeo and me to blame us for not telling him about the new sanctions, which was inaccurate because the sanctions had previously gone through a National Security Council review process without objection from anyone. Within hours, Trump concluded he was relaxed about this particular decision, but he still thought we were being too tough on Putin. Trump told Pompeo to call Lavrov and say “some bureaucrat” had published the sanctions — a call that may or may not have ever taken place.

In addition to objecting to sanctions, Trump stopped an anodyne statement criticizing Russia on the tenth anniversary of its invasion of Georgia, a completely unforced error. Russia would have ignored it, but the Europeans noticed its absence and became even more concerned about American resolve. This was typical of Trump, who in June 2019 also blocked a draft statement on the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacres and criticized the State Department for a press release issued before he knew about it. Trump seemed to think that criticizing the policies and actions of foreign governments made it harder for him to have good personal relations with their leaders. This was a reflection of his difficulty in separating personal from official relations. I’m not aware of any case where Russia or China refrained from criticizing the United States for fear of irritating our sensitive leaders.

Bolton, John. The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir. United States: Simon & Schuster, 2020.

A preview of the book is here:

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