Trump Slammed For Press Conference Comments But Signaled No Change in Russia Policy

Patrick Goodenough | July 17, 2018 | 4:16am EDT
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President Trump, accompanied by First Lady Melania Trump, meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday, July 17, 2018. (Photo: The Kremlin)

( – President Trump’s press conference remarks in Helsinki are drawing fire from Democrats and Republicans at home, but one thing he did not do publicly was announce any concessions or tempering of administration policies that have arguably been tougher on Russia than those of his predecessors.

While Trump is being harshly criticized for his response to questions about President Vladimir Putin’s denials of meddling in the 2016 election, there were no indications of a softening in key areas of foreign policy differences – relating to Ukraine, Syria, Iran and ballistic missile defense in Europe.

“What Donald Trump says and what his administration does are not necessarily things that are closely related,” Danielle Pletka, senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, told the BBC after the summit.

She said the Trump administration “has in fact been very aggressive in pushing sanctions against Russian bad economic actors, Russian intelligence actors and others … who have played a bad role on the international stage.”

Pletka pushed back on the charge that Trump had raised little in public about Russian malfeasances.

“That’s the kind of accusation that I find the least sympathetic,” she said. “The Obama administration was completely indifferent to the suffering of the Syrian people, including when Russia got involved,” she said. “The Obama administration was completely uninterested in defending Crimea from Russia.”

Pletka did express concern about some of Trump’s comments, particularly what she called the drawing of “moral equivalency” between the word of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and that of the Russian “dictator” relating to election meddling.

Pletka said it was important that Trump made no commitments to Putin at the press conference.

Peter Brookes, senior fellow for national security affairs at The Heritage Foundation, made a similar point in a podcast for the conservative think-tank’s Daily Signal – although he cautioned that the recording was being made just hours after the press conference and “the administration will have opportunity to tell us more” in time to come.

“There are no policy changes coming out of this press conference. The president didn’t say we’re changing this or we’re changing that,” Brookes said, contrasting that to Trump’s surprise announcement after meeting with Kim Jong Un on suspending joint military exercises with South Korea.

The U.S. policy on Russia has not changed, he said, describing it as “the toughest policy we’ve seen in several presidencies in the United States – certainly tougher than [President] Obama.”

Brookes cited sanctions, indictments, the expulsion of Russian “diplomats,” defense spending increases, and NATO “reassurance initiatives” in Europe.

Trump vs. Obama on Russia

Pushing back on Russia and its allies, the Trump administration:

--Provided defensive weaponry to Ukraine as it confronts Russian-backed separatists in the east – in contrast to Obama’s insistence on providing “non-lethal” aid only. The first anti-tank missiles arrived at the end of April.

--Withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, and launched a campaign to pressurize the regime in Tehran to end “malign activities” in the region. The nuclear deal, an Obama foreign policy priority, set aside concerns about non-nuclear-related Iranian behavior.

--Ordered missile strikes, twice, against Putin’s allies in Damascus following chemical weapons attacks. In response to an even deadlier chemical attack in 2013, Obama shelved punitive military action in favor of a Russian-brokered deal to remove the regime’s declared chemical weapons stocks.

-- Angered Russia by shooting down of a Syrian regime aircraft in June last year.

-- Launched a deadly counterstrike in Syria after pro-regime forces, including Russian nationals, attacked U.S.-backed rebels last February.

Putin acknowledged in Helsinki that Trump in their talks had not shifted on the “well-known” position that Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula was illegal.

In the only other references to Ukraine, Putin essentially grumbled that the U.S. was not pushing Kiev hard enough on observing the 2015 Minsk ceasefire agreements; and said he had assured Trump, in response to his concerns, that Russia was prepared to renew an agreement to pipe natural gas across Ukraine.

Meanwhile Trump made clear his administration’s stance on Iran remains unchanged, saying he had “emphasized the importance of placing pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear ambitions and to stop its campaign of violence throughout the area.”

“I also made clear that the United States will not allow Iran to benefit from our successful campaign against ISIS,” he said.

Putin, whose forces have worked closely with the Iranians in support of the Assad regime, confirmed the two leaders had agreed on securing Israel’s Golan Heights border with Syria – indirectly alluding to the presence near Israeli territory of Iranian forces or their proxies, an issue of major concern for Israel.

Putin said Trump had devoted “special attention to this issue” in their talks.

On the JCPOA, there was no indication of any shift on Trump’s part. Putin said the two had discussed Russia’s concern about the U.S. withdrawal from the deal.

The issue of missile defense did not come up in press conference questions, but Putin in his opening remarks suggested there was no movement on the issue, referring to the need to work though issues including “the dangerous situation with the global American anti-missile defense system.”

The Pentagon says the missile defense umbrella in Europe – with interceptors in Poland and Romania, Aegis ships in the Mediterranean and a radar installation in Turkey – is designed to protect U.S. troops and allies against the threat of missiles launched by Iran.

Russia hotly disagrees, accusing the U.S. of trying to compromise its nuclear deterrent.

When campaigning for a second term in 2012, Obama controversially told the then outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev to tell Putin that Obama would “have more flexibility” on missile defense after the election.

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