President Donald Trump personally made the decision to abandon plans to impose more sanctions on Russia for supporting Syria’s chemical weapons attack on civilians, according to three senior administration officials and a source familiar with the discussions.
The first senior administration source said the Trump administration informed the Russian government there won’t be an additional round of sanctions. The official said the call was made to the Russian Embassy on Sunday. They said the confusion caused by comments made by UN Ambassador Nikki Haley in a Sunday show interview when she said new sanctions were coming made the call necessary.
The second administration official said a high-level person at the State Department called the embassy to say Haley’s comments about sanctions were not correct. The source said the State Department official did not tell the Russians they were off the hook or that they would not face any sanctions, but conveyed that the issue was still under consideration.
Trump’s national security team seemed to have reached enough of a consensus on punishing Russia for its de facto support for the attack that left at least 75 dead that Haley told CBS’ "Face the Nation" on Sunday that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin would be unveiling sanctions on Russia the next day.
The White House and State Department did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment.
At an early evening news conference Wednesday, Trump was questioned about the scrubbed sanctions.
"We’ll do sanctions as soon as they very much deserve it," Trump said in Florida. "There’s been nobody tougher on Russia than President Donald Trump."
"With the media, no matter what I did, it’s never tough enough, because that’s the narrative," Trump said. "But Russia will tell you there’s been nobody tougher than Donald Trump."
The third senior administration official tells CNN that it isn’t exactly clear why Trump was opposed to another round of sanctions. The source familiar said the issue wasn’t that penalties were "not ready," but that Trump simply didn’t want them to go forward now.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova confirmed to CNN that the Trump administration notified the Russian Embassy in Washington that additional sanctions were not, in fact, coming. The news was first published in The Washington Post.
Trump’s reversal once again raises questions about his affinity for Russia despite Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 US election, its alleged use of chemical weapons on foreign soil to target a former spy and its backing for the Syrian regime as it conducts possible war crimes against its own people.
The administration’s attempts to roll back Haley’s Sunday comments rippled across Washington, and White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow’s comment that "there might have been some momentary confusion" from the UN ambassador prompted a sharp rebuttal.
"With all due respect, I don’t get confused," Haley shot back at Kudlow on Tuesday.
Two administration officials familiar with the matter say Trump changed his mind on imposing additional sanctions and that was not communicated to Haley. One source described the matter as a communication breakdown.
Sources say that when Haley made her television appearance Sunday it was based on accurate information she’d received in a briefing from the White House. It is unclear exactly when Trump changed his mind — before or after her TV appearance.
The source with knowledge of discussions said Trump wasn’t happy that Haley was speaking publicly about the sanctions before he was ready. The source said Trump was also annoyed that, to his mind, Europeans weren’t taking as much punitive action against Russia.
Two dozen countries expelled Russian diplomats to protest the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter on British soil. The source familiar said Trump was irritated by the fact that the US expelled 60, which was far more than France and Germany.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tuesday that the administration continues to weigh further sanctions against Moscow.
"Sanctions are always under consideration," Nauert said. "That is something that the administration at the interagency level has under consideration. And that is still under consideration at this time, but we have nothing that we are ready — nothing that we are set to announce at this time."
More broadly, Trump has privately maintained his desire to meet again with Vladimir Putin, who he called to congratulate after the Russian President won re-election in March, according to a fourth senior administration official. Trump said afterward that the two leaders would likely meet soon.
Trump continues to believe there would be few downsides to face-to-face dialogue, despite the ongoing investigation into ties between his presidential campaign and Russia. Trump has expressed a belief that talking directly to Putin could clear up small differences and might lead to more substantive talks.
This official said Trump doesn’t maintain any "illusions" about Putin and recognizes that the major disputes between the US and Russia won’t be resolved with a single meeting. But his instinct to court the Russian leader can be seen in the decision to stop sanctions, despite the discussions that led Haley to believe further sanctions were coming.
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