The White House’s internal disagreements barreled into the public view in spectacular fashion this week.
- The White House’s latest public flare-up involves a full-scale spat between President Donald Trump and one of his top cabinet officials on the most hot-button foreign policy issue facing this administration: Russia.
- After the president flipped his position on new US sanctions on Russia, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations who announced the sanctions, refused to allow the White House to paint her as “confused.”
- Meanwhile, Russia stands to benefit from divisions within the Trump administration and its softer policy toward the country.
The White House’s latest public flare-up involves a full-scale spat between President Donald Trump and one of his top cabinet officials on the most hot-button foreign policy issue facing this administration: Russia.
This time, there are two winners, and neither of them is the president.
Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, announced Sunday morning that the US would impose new sanctions against Russia in the wake of a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria. Hours later, Trump reversed his position, and the White House told the Russian government to disregard Haley’s comments, The Washington Post reported, citing a Russian foreign ministry official.
The White House’s abrupt reversal is said to have blindsided Haley, who was apparently not informed of the change. Things devolved further when White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow suggested Haley had been momentarily “confused” when she announced the sanctions on Sunday.
Haley, whose hawkish approach to Russia has put her at odds with Trump before, shot down Kudlow’s comment in a remarkable display of public hostility between a top diplomat and the White House.
“With all due respect, I don’t get confused,” she told Fox News on Tuesday, prompting Kudlow to call her to apologize and reverse his statement.
This is the second time Trump has appeared to reject Haley’s influence in his White House in recent days.
On Sunday, the president intervened to stop Vice President Mike Pence from hiring Haley’s top aide, Jon Lerner, as his national security adviser. Lerner would have served both Pence and Haley in an unusual dual role.
‘Who wrote that for her?’
It is not atypical for government officials to internally disagree on substantive policy issues. That’s doubly true in the absence of a sitting secretary of state to spearhead US foreign policy.
But this case is unprecedented, experts said.
For one, it’s clear that what should have been a private disagreement erupted into a full-scale public row.
“This president is so sensitive to when he feels like other parts of his administration are getting out in front of where he is on policy issues, and extraordinarily so with Russia,” said Richard Kauzlarich, a former deputy assistant secretary of state who is an expert on Russia policy.
When Haley went on television recently and criticized Russia over its aggression toward Ukraine, Trump reportedly yelled angrily, “Who wrote that for her?”
Trump’s about-face on the latest sanctions push came after he blew up at advisers upon finding out that the US had expelled far more Russian diplomats than its European allies in response to the poisoning of a former Russian spy (allegedly committed by Russian operatives) in the UK last month.
According to The Post, Trump was furious that his administration was being portrayed as having taken the toughest stance against Russia.
Regarding Haley’s sanctions announcement over the weekend, Kauzlarich said Trump may have felt “boxed in, just like he apparently felt with previous decisions.”
“It seems like he feels vulnerable on Russia to begin with and wants to control that narrative, instead of being seen as being dictated to by experts or advisers,” he added.
The Trump-Haley rift is “absolutely strange and unique,” said Mark Simakovsky, a former NATO chief of staff who advised the Department of Defense on key issues surrounding the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
“It showcases that the president ultimately is very hesitant to take any steps that would somehow undermine US-Russia relations and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s perception of the US,” he said.
This is a ‘net win’ for Haley
While Trump prevailed in dictating US policy regarding the sanctions, he may not have scored a political win.
A popular former governor of South Carolina, Haley adds mainstream, establishment credibility to the Trump administration and is often described as one of the most effective members of the cabinet and a rising star in the party.
“It was a coup for the administration to recruit her,” said Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist and president of the Potomac Strategy Group, adding that Haley has been “an unquestioned success” in her role at the UN.
Mackowiak says that while it’s unclear whether Trump set out to undermine Haley, it would be a “terrible mistake” to do so, both because of Haley’s popularity and as a matter of US relations with foreign allies and adversaries, which now have reason to question her credibility.
But Mackowiak and others say Haley’s decision to stand up for herself was strategically helpful to her. She comes out looking principled, while the White House appears incompetent and mismanaged.
“This is a net win for her,” said Republican strategist Evan Siegfried.
While the public break between Haley and Trump reflects a deeper disagreement in their ideological positions on US foreign policy, it also illuminates a political tension between two ambitious politicians.
Trump has reportedly surmised that Haley was angling to replace former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, with whom she was often at odds. And Republicans close to the White House have begun talking about a potential Haley-Pence ticket in 2020, The New York Times reported, an idea that has upset Trump.
Indeed, Haley’s gubernatorial experience combined with her new foreign policy chops would position her well for a presidential bid. But she would need to maintain support among the party’s base, while strengthening her appeal among critics of Trump — a difficult balancing act.
“She is walking a very fine line, a tightrope,” Siegfried said.
‘This plays to Putin’s advantage’
The other clear winner is Russia.
“If I’m a senior official in Moscow, I’m feeling pretty good about this division and the public disarray on the US’s Russia policy,” Kauzlarich said. “This plays to Putin’s advantage.”
The Trump administration has taken a number of steps to hold Russia accountable for its aggression.
But Simakovsky said Russia likely believes it has more leeway to continue destabilizing US interests since the president “is working to pour cold water on initiatives that push back against Russia.”
The division between Trump and his cabinet officials on Russia will also give the Kremlin more ammunition it can use to widen that gap. Russia can then seize on the Trump administration’s private and public divisions to portray the US as rhetorically tough but practically weak.
“There’s no staying power, so some of our allies and adversaries can say the US is not the global leader on these issues because we don’t have a unified policy,” Simakovsky said.