Trump Rips U.S.-Russia Relations, Opens Up to China

Trump Rips U.S.-Russia Relations, Opens Up to China
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President Trump and his top international advisers assailed President Vladimir Putin Wednesday, describing U.S.-Russia relations as hovering at an “all-time low.” 

The dire descriptions of fault lines between Washington and Moscow stood in stark contrast with the praise and appreciation Trump heaped on President Xi Jinping of China, with whom he said he forged “very strong bonding” during discussions last week in Florida. Hours of conversations at Mar-a-Lago about trade, North Korea and China’s role in the Asia-Pacific region were sweetened with chocolate dessert and the playful presence of Trump’s young grandchildren, the president and a senior administration official told reporters on background.

Trump and Xi spoke again by phone Tuesday evening, and by Wednesday, China – a member of the United Nations Security Council – opted to abstain rather than join Russia in blocking the U.N. condemnation of Syria for its use last week of chemical weapons against civilians. The United Nations has called for an independent investigation. 

Asked about China’s abstention, Trump said he was not surprised.

"I think it's wonderful that they abstained. As you know, very few people expected that," Trump said during a White House news conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. "We are honored by the vote. That's the vote that should have taken place," he added.

The senior administration official, who reveled in what he described as a “really great week” for U.S. interests and international engagement, declined to directly link Trump’s talks with Xi to China’s decision to stand apart from Russia at the United Nations. The president said he encouraged Xi to understand that China’s help to the global community when it comes to halting North Korea’s nuclear trajectory would benefit China when it comes to trade and economic ties with the United States.

“I think that President Xi’s decision speaks for itself in terms of his leadership and his determination to not obstruct the U.N.’s ability to sanction the Assad regime for its behavior,” the senior official said.

In another in a series of notable reversals from his campaign rhetoric, Trump declined to label China a currency manipulator during an interview with the Wall Street Journal Wednesday. Trump’s senior advisers turned aside questions about whether the “good chemistry” between Trump and Xi produced any kind of tangible cooperation between the two leaders in the wake of their Florida summit. 

Trump also reversed course on the importance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a military alliance based in Europe, which he dismissed as obsolete during his campaign. Trump praised NATO Wednesday and said he looked forward to discussing counterterrorism and shared obligations with member countries next month. Following that meeting in Brussels, Trump will represent the United States at the annual summit of the Group of Seven developed nations, hosted this year by Italy. 

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, concluding Moscow talks with Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday, did not gloss over stark disagreements between the United States and Russia tied to its military backing for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 

“We need to attempt to put an end to this steady degradation, which is doing nothing to restore the trust between our two countries,” the secretary of state said. 

A bilateral “working group” will attempt to chip away at “smaller issues” of conflict, Tillerson and Lavrov said. And the two countries will continue to discuss preventing North Korea from developing nuclear weapons and resolving the tangle of geopolitical tragedies and threats in Syria and the Middle East.

Tillerson rebuked Russia for its aggression in Ukraine. In turn, Lavrov lectured the U.S. diplomat about what Russia views as the United States’ destabilizing and ill-conceived adventures to topple totalitarian regimes and dictators.  

The secretary, backed by a chorus of support from administration officials, tacitly agreed with President Obama’s charge last year, initially refuted by Trump, that Russia interfered with the U.S. presidential election with intrusions carried out in cyberspace. Senior Trump administration officials also put Montenegro on a list of countries in which the United States believes Russia has meddled with elections. 

Lavrov accused the Obama administration of attempting to “artificially” subvert U.S.-Russian relations via the incoming Trump administration using its accusations of cyber crimes, hacking and data thefts, and election interference. 

Trump, who labeled Assad “an animal” and “a butcher” during his appearances Wednesday, continued to sound a hopeful note that relations with Putin and Russia might one day improve. “It would be a fantastic thing if we got along with Putin and if we got along with Russia,” he said.

But Trump’s once-warm embrace of Russia appeared to chill. “Right now, we’re not getting along with Russia at all,” he conceded. “We may be at an all-time low in terms of a relationship with Russia. This has built for a long period of time.” 

Simultaneously, his top advisers suggested Trump’s policy approach – missile launches in Syria aside – was more optimistic.  “I think what you’ve seen with the president in the last couple [of days] – at least I have [seen] as a member of the team here – is someone who sees possibilities where many others would see only difficulties,” the senior administration official enthused during a briefing with reporters.

The president’s rhetorical reversals on a host of issues made famous during his campaign have startled some supporters and prompted howls from veterans of the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton’s campaign team. 

While Trump’s White House advisers celebrated a week in which they said U.S. foreign policy had been reset along a more nimble course compared with Obama’s tenure, Democrats noted that Trump’s multilateral outreach, reliance on international institutions and allies, and calls for political resolutions to multiple conflicts were strikingly akin to his recent predecessors' approach.

“Trump told his voters he was going to stand up to China. Apparently that means pursuing the same approach as past presidents,” Ben Rhodes, former National Security Council spokesman for Obama, tweeted Wednesday.

Trump’s primary goal in Syria, he repeated this week, is the eradication of ISIS and other terrorist groups. He has threatened to take additional actions against Assad, if necessary, to advance what he calls U.S. national interests and to defend the Syrian people against war crimes. Trump said he would not telegraph U.S. planning aimed at ISIS, Assad, or North Korea, whose nuclear ambitions and continued missile testing violate international conventions. 

“We’re not going into Syria,” the president said during a Fox Business interview Wednesday, apparently referring to U.S. combat troops.

Tillerson, following his meetings in Moscow, said he discussed with Putin and Lavrov the U.S. position that a political solution to the seven-year civil war in Syria must result in the ouster of Assad and his family from power. He said it was possible that investigators could uncover sufficient evidence to prosecute Assad as a war criminal. 

But the former Exxon Mobil CEO, whose business ties to Putin originated with the petroleum industry, said Russia could play a constructive role in a post-Assad Syria. 

“Russia, as their closest ally in the conflict, perhaps has the best means of helping Assad recognize this reality,” Tillerson said. “We do think it's important that Assad's departure is done in an orderly way -- an orderly way -- so that certain interests and constituencies that he represents feel they have been represented at the negotiating table for a political solution.”

Lavrov endorsed a shared U.S.-Russia ambition to defeat ISIS, saying the Trump administration and Russia “agreed to continue to work bilaterally in order to facilitate this process.” But he disputed the U.N. insistence, and U.S. intelligence corroboration, of evidence that Syrian forces -- rather than rebel or terrorist factions  -- unleashed the nerve agent sarin on Syrian civilians last week. The Russian foreign minister described Russia’s position as “neutral” on that point, and called for an independent investigation, as well as Syria’s cooperation with the fact-finding.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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