President Donald Trump’s comments and actions in relation to Russia – and especially toward President Vladimir Putin — are strikingly conciliatory considering Moscow’s documented attacks on America’s democracy and its repeated violations of international norms and repression at home. Certainly some U.S. measures under the Trump administration have been contrary to Russian interests if not punitive, including some implementation of sanctions legislation. But Trump signed the sanctions legislation reluctantly, and overall his comments and actions have demonstrated a desire to embrace Russia.
In the past, Just Security published a timeline called, “Russian Provocations and Dangerous Acts since January 20, 2017.” The new timeline below, which now includes developments since early June and up until July 10, 2018, chronicles 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.
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 sanctionsagainst 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 TASSreporter.
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’sconversations 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 ambassadorsincluding 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 CommissionJean-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, Politicoreports. 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.