President Trump wanted to offer immediate public acknowledgment this year when the U.S. military killed hundreds of Russian mercenaries in self-defense.
But some of the National Security Council (NSC) staff, under the leadership of H.R. McMaster, who was then the national security adviser, did not think it was a good idea out of concern for antagonizing the Russians.
The president wanted press secretary Sarah Sanders to immediately acknowledge and “take credit” for killing the Russians, but McMaster and the NSC staff stopped them.
For weeks following the incident on February 7, U.S. officials avoided pinpointing who comprised the force that had attacked a base where U.S forces were stationed in eastern Syria.
Part of the cautiousness came from not being “100 percent sure” it was the Russians, although all indications pointed to them.
But much of it was concern for provoking the Russians — a regular concern that pervaded the thinking in the Obama NSC.
It was not until two months later, after McMaster departed in early April, that then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo was able to confirm it during his confirmation hearing for secretary of state.
“In Syria, now, a handful of weeks ago the Russian[s] met their match,” Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 12. “A couple hundred Russians were killed.”
Two sources familiar with the debate confirmed the account to Breitbart News.
Bloomberg News reported in late February that the White House was “considering” citing the Russian deaths as evidence of the president’s tough stance with the Kremlin but did not discuss who opposed the idea or why.
The episode sheds some insight on a president who has been tougher on Russia than he has been given credit for.
The media have largely perpetuated the narrative that Trump has been “soft” on Russia, despite statements and actions to the contrary.
Part of it stems back to the president’s own expressed desire on the campaign trail to get along with Russia. But it has also been fanned by unsupported accusations that the president colluded with Russia to win the election in exchange for more favorable treatment.
Contrary to the narrative, the Trump administration has taken a number of steps to ratchet up pressure on Russia for its interference in Western elections, its illegal occupations of territories in Ukraine and Georgia, its violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and support for Syrian dictator Bashir Assad, among other things.
Indeed, there is a long list of actions the Trump administration has taken against Russia.
For example, the Trump administration to date has sanctioned 217 Russian-related individuals and entities, including some that have gone after powerful Russian oligarchs and state-owned companies.
After one round of sanctions on April 6, the combined net worth of Russia’s 27 wealthiest people fell by an estimated $16 billion in one day, Moscow-traded stocks had their biggest drop in four years, and the ruble fell to its weakest position since late 2016, according to the Treasury Department.
“Treasury has made countering Russian aggression a top priority, and consequently, our actions to date have resulted in an unprecedented level of financial pressure against those working on behalf of the Kremlin and in key sectors of the Russian economy targeted by U.S. sanctions,” Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Marshall Billingslea told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month.
A. Wess Mitchell, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told the committee that on average, sanctioned Russian firms have seen their operating revenue fall by a quarter, their total asset valuation fall by half, and have been forced to fire a third of their employees.
The Trump administration also expelled 60 Russian spies from the U.S. in March — the largest expulsion ever at one time by any president. It also closed or kept closed six Russian diplomatic and consular facilities in the U.S. in Washington, California, and New York.
The Trump administration also labeled Russia as a “revisionist power” in its National Security Strategy (NSS) and National Defense Strategy (NDS). “Russia aims to weaken U.S. influence in the world and divide us from our allies and partners,” the NSS said.
It has also lifted Obama administration’s restrictions on selling Ukraine and Georgia defensive weapons to help them stave off further aggression from Russia and added $200 million in security cooperation funds to Ukraine.
President Trump also twice ordered strikes against the Syrian regime, Russia’s ally in the Middle East, after it used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians in its civil war.
Under the Trump administration, the Pentagon has also led or participated in 150 military exercises in Europe in 2018 and requested more than $11 billion for the European Deterrence Initiative — an increase of $4.8 billion from the year before.
Mitchell said that over the past year-and-a-half, the U.S. has worked with NATO allies to bring about the “largest European defense spending increase since the Cold War” — $40 billion to date.
“Russia’s behavior, while aimed at driving a wedge between the members of the most successful NATO alliance in history, does not undermine our alliance and partnerships; it brings us closer together,” said Eric Pahon, a Pentagon spokesman.
The administration has also banned the use of Kapersky Labs software on federal computers in September 2017 due to its ties to Russian intelligence. In March 2017, the Justice Department charged three Russians for the 2014 Yahoo hack, including two Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officers.
And the administration in August 2018 imposed export control restrictions under the Chemical Biological Warfare Act against Russian government-owned entities for Russia’s use of chemical weapons against Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the United Kingdom.
And on September 6, the U.S. joined with France, Germany, and Canada, and the U.K. in a statement to affirm an intent to continue to “disrupt together the hostile activities of foreign intelligence networks on our territories, uphold the prohibition of chemical weapons, protect our citizens and defend ourselves from all forms of malign state activity directed against us and our societies.”
Trump and other senior administration officials have expressed strong vocal opposition to Nord Stream 2, a German-Russia pipeline that would economically benefit Russia, and has supported the Southern Gas Corridor project, which would lessen Europe’s dependence on Russian gas.
Although Trump was criticized for meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in July, the Russian president said Trump had maintained that Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was illegal.
The president also chose a Russia hawk as his national security adviser — Amb. John Bolton. Bolton took office April 9, three days before Pompeo confirmed that U.S. forces killed Russian mercenaries in Syria.
The State Department’s European and Eurasian Affairs Office has taken numerous other actions to fight Russian influence operations.
Despite these actions, the media have tended to focus on Trump’s statements that fuel the narrative that he has been soft on Russia, such as his refusal during a press conference with Putin in Helsinki to blame Russia for the 2016 election meddling.
“Oddly, his rhetoric isn’t the problem it is made out to be — he is just offering Putin an off-ramp, the opportunity for better relations — but only if Putin stops efforts to undermine the stability of Western Europe,” said James Carafano, vice president of the Heritage Foundation’s Kathyrn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy.
“This is exactly the message of virtually every European leader. The anger over Trump and Russia is more a reflection of ugly domestic politics than actual U.S. policies,” he added.
Pompeo outlined the Trump administration’s policy towards Russia at a July 25 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing:
From the outset of this administration, as outlined in the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy, and the Russia Integrated Strategy, our approach has been the same: to steadily raise the costs of aggression until Vladimir Putin chooses a less confrontational foreign policy, while keeping the door open for dialogue in our national interest.
President Trump believes that two great nuclear powers should not have such a contentious relationship. This is not just in our interest, but in the interest of the whole world. He strongly believes that now is the time for direct communication in our relationship in order to make clear to President Putin that there is the possibility to reverse the negative course of our relationship. Otherwise, the Administration will continue imposing tough actions against Russia in response to its malign activities.
Carafano said even the Russians and U.S. allies think Trump has been tough enough on Russia.
“The Russians think so. It is clear by their actions. They are constantly looking for ways to disguise that the U.S. pressure is really having an impact and constantly looking for ways to irritate the U.S,” he said.
“Allies think so too. In private, they acknowledge the U.S. has been tough on the Russians in practice.”
Sen. David Perdue (R-GA), a member of the Armed Services Committee and a top Trump ally in the Senate, applauded the president’s engagement and tough stance on Russia.
“After eight years of the Obama Administration’s disengagement, President Trump is reengaging with the rest of the world. The President is making America’s national security interests known and taking a strong stance with not only Russia, but also North Korea, Iran, and other nefarious actors around the world today,” he said in a statement to Breitbart News.
Kristina Wong is Breitbart News’ Pentagon correspondent. Follow her at @kristina_wong.