WH takes back announcement on Russia sanctions

Deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley declines to say why the White House halted additional sanctions on Russia announced by US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley.

Posted: Apr 18, 2018 5:48 AM
Updated: Apr 18, 2018 5:48 AM

A consensus emerged Tuesday at the White House and Mar-a-Lago about how to clean up the administration's suddenly muddled plans to crack down on Russia: Blame Nikki Haley.

Several administration officials said the US ambassador to the United Nations got ahead of President Donald Trump's decision-making when she hit the Sunday talk show circuit and said the US would level new sanctions the next day targeting Russian companies that facilitated the Syrian regime's chemical weapons program. The sanctions have yet to come.

"She got ahead of the curve," National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow told reporters on Tuesday near the President's Florida estate, a day after a report claiming Trump "put the brakes" on plans for new Russia sanctions. "She's done a great job, she's a very effective ambassador. There might have been some momentary confusion about that."

Haley struck back with a stunning statement later in the day that opened a new rift in the administration and raised questions about the White House's explanation of her comments.

"With all due respect, I don't get confused," she said in a statement obtained by CNN's Jake Tapper.

A White House official said Kudlow apologized to Haley for saying that she might have been confused.

But he wasn't alone in that sentiment. A day earlier, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders responded to reports about Haley's comments by saying the administration was "considering additional sanctions on Russia," but that a decision hadn't yet been made.

Separately, two senior administration officials told CNN Tuesday that the President had not signed off on the new sanctions by the time Haley made her comments on two news programs Sunday and said Haley must have walked away from a Friday White House meeting about the sanctions having misunderstood how firm the plans were.

Haley's statement Tuesday evening suggested she was in sync with the administration's plans during her Sunday show appearances.

Trump 'annoyed'

Privately, Trump was "annoyed" at the confusion, a senior administration official said, one of the rare instances in which Haley has drawn his ire. It's not clear whether Trump has spoken directly to her since the White House said Haley had overstepped. Trump has praised Haley's performances at the UN Security Council to his aides as she makes the administration's case on Syria.

Haley wasn't the only official who walked away from Friday's meeting believing the sanctions against Russian entities would be announced in the coming days, as part of the broader US message about chemical weapons attacks following US-led airstrikes in Syria, administration officials said. But Haley did not clear her talking points about the sanctions with other administration officials before appearing Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation" and "Fox News Sunday," two officials said.

Other administration officials were surprised that Haley had overstepped. Haley is known inside the White House for being one of the administration's most polished -- and outspoken -- public figures. She has been known to clear her remarks directly with the President before appearing on Sunday news programs, wary of contradicting a publicity-conscious President. One senior administration official expressed skepticism that Haley would have publicly previewed sanctions without a member of Trump's national security team confirming the plans to her before her interviews.

Even as the White House placed the blame squarely on Haley's shoulders, questions remained about what prompted her to specifically say: Treasury "Secretary Mnuchin will be announcing (new Russia sanctions) on Monday, if he hasn't already." She even said the sanctions would hit "any sort of companies that were dealing with equipment related to Assad and chemical weapons used."

And if Haley had overstepped on Sunday, it's not clear why White House waited more than 24 hours to correct the record.

The confusion was met with the typical sequence of eyerolls across Washington, where some surmised the public dissonance between Haley and the White House was just another symbol of the Trump presidency's inconsistency on policy, especially when it comes to Russia.

'Standard confusion'

"How many other things do you want to mention have been rolled out that way?" Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, told reporters Tuesday. "I didn't think much about it. You know, two weeks ago, we're moving out of Syria the next day, and then the next day we weren't. It's just sort of standard confusion."

The disconnect fed an emerging narrative that despite a series of punitive actions the President has aimed at Russia in recent weeks, he has done so reluctantly or unwittingly. The sense that Trump was backing away from a plan to roll out new Russia sanctions came after The Washington Post reported that Trump was upset that the US had expelled 60 Russian diplomats, believing the US would match the number of diplomats expelled by individual European countries -- not as a whole.

Trump has also privately maintained his desire to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, believing there would be few downsides to face-to-face dialogue, according to a senior administration official. He has expressed a belief that talking directly to Putin could clear up small differences that might lead to more substantive talks.

But this official said Trump doesn't maintain any "illusions" about Putin and recognizes the major disputes between the US and Russia won't be resolved with a single meeting.

Officials who weren't directly involved in the sanctions deliberations but knew of their progress weren't surprised by Haley's announcement on Sunday because they fit the "trajectory" the considerations were heading in, one person familiar with the matter said.

Multiple administration officials said they expected the sanctions would be announced in the days after the Syria strikes on Friday night, when even Trump warned the US response to Syria's suspected use of chemical weapons would "integrate all instruments of our national power -- military, economic, and diplomatic."

"We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents," Trump said in his national address.

Lingering questions

Questions about what prompted Haley to strike such a definitive note on the impending sanctions still hung in the balmy Palm Beach air Tuesday, where the President and several of his top aides are spending the week.

It was also not immediately clear whether the sanctions Haley had previewed -- and which multiple officials said were coming down the pike -- were still impending.

"Additional sanctions are under discussion but haven't been determined," Kudlow said Tuesday.

Trump told advisers Sunday that Russia's response to the strikes was less aggressive than he expected, leading Trump to question whether additional sanctions were warranted.

Even as Trump privately questions the need for additional sanctions in light of Russia's modest response to the US strikes, several administration officials said they expected new US sanctions to be leveled against Russian companies that facilitated Syria's chemical weapons program.

One source familiar with the deliberations said the sanctions were certainly not off the table and that discussions were ongoing, but declined to say when they would be publicly announced.

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