Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and US President Donald Trump shake hands before a meeting in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP)        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
37 times President Trump was soft on Russia
06:25 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: This story originally published on November 17, 2019. It has been updated to include 12 new instances in which President Trump has gone easy on Russia.

CNN  — 

President Donald Trump has an Achilles’ heel when it comes to Russia.

Over the years, he’s made no secret that he has a soft spot for the country and its authoritarian leader, President Vladimir Putin. Trump has proved that he is willing to reject widely held US foreign policy views and align himself with the Kremlin on everything from Russian interference in US elections to the war in Syria.

Most recently, Trump has denied the veracity of US intelligence reports accusing Russia of paying bounties to Taliban fighters to kill US troops in Afghanistan. Pressed on the topic during an interview with Axios that was released on Wednesday, Trump said he did not raise the issue during a recent phone call with Putin, and continued to suggest that the reports are “fake news.”

During the 2016 campaign, Trump’s ties to Russians were so concerning that the FBI believed there was good reason to investigate potential collusion between his 2016 campaign and the Kremlin. Counterintelligence investigators also examined whether Trump himself was somehow a Russian asset. (Special counsel Robert Mueller did not establish a criminal conspiracy of collusion.)

In Trump’s eyes, these allegations are proof of a conspiracy against him by Democratic lawmakers and other “deep state” enemies within the US government. He has bombastically declared, “There’s never been a president as tough on Russia as I have been” – a dubious claim that he repeated during the Russian bounties scandal.

But Trump’s narrative is simply false, based on his own actions over the last few years. Here’s a breakdown of 37 occasions when Trump was soft on Russia or gave Putin a boost.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump talk during a bilateral meeting at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019.

Trump has repeatedly praised Putin

While he was a private citizen, during his 2016 campaign and throughout his presidency, Trump has showered Putin with praise. He said Putin was “so nice,” he called Putin a “strong leader” and said Putin has done “a really great job outsmarting our country.” Trump also claimed he’d “get along very well” with Putin. Few, if any, Western leaders have echoed these comments.

Trump hired Manafort to run his campaign

Trump raised eyebrows in spring 2016 when he hired GOP operative Paul Manafort to run his presidential campaign. Manafort spent a decade working for pro-Russian politicians and parties in Ukraine and cultivated close relationships with Putin-friendly oligarchs. Manafort was sentenced in 2019 to 7.5 years prison for, among other things, evading taxes on the $60 million he had made in Ukraine. (He was released to house arrest in May 2020 amid coronavirus concerns.)

Trump suggested Russia can keep Crimea

Trump said Putin did “an amazing job of taking the mantle” when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump broke with US policy and suggested he was OK if Russia kept the Ukrainian territory. He repeated a Kremlin talking point, saying, “The people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.”

Trump aides softened GOP platform on Ukraine

Ahead of the 2016 Republican National Convention, Trump campaign aides blocked language from the party platform that called for the US government to send lethal weapons to Ukraine for its war against Russian proxies. Mueller investigated this for potential collusion but determined the change was not made “at the behest” of Russia. (The Trump administration ultimately gave lethal arms and anti-tank weapons to the Ukrainian military.)

Trump made light of Russian hacking

Throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump cast doubt on the US government assessment that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. At a news conference in July 2016, he even asked Russia to hack more, saying, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,”

Trump capitalized on Russian meddling to win

Instead of condemning Russia for hacking and leaking Democratic emails, Trump eagerly capitalized on the Kremlin’s meddling, and used the emails to attack Clinton on a near-daily basis in the final stretch of the campaign. The Mueller report said Trump’s campaign “expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts” and that top officials believed they had inside information about WikiLeaks, so they planned a strategy around the expected release of hacked emails.

Trump denied that Russia interfered in 2016

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department and the Senate Intelligence Committee all confirmed that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump. But Trump has repeatedly rejected this view, and publicly sided with Putin at the Helsinki summit in 2018, saying he accepted Putin’s denials.

Trump transition undermined Russian sanctions

After the 2016 election, the Trump transition team asked Russia not to retaliate too strongly against new US sanctions imposed by then-President Barack Obama. The sanctions were intended to punish Russia for interfering in the election, but then-Trump aide Michael Flynn asked the Russian ambassador not to escalate the situation so they could have a good relationship once Trump took over.

Trump was open to lifting Russian sanctions

Days before his inauguration, Trump told The Wall Street Journal that he was open to lifting sanctions on Russia. He said: “If you get along and if Russia is really helping us, why would anybody have sanctions if somebody’s doing some really great things?” Putin has tried for years to persuade the US and European countries to end crippling sanctions on Russia’s economy.

Trump refused to say Putin is a killer

Bucking other US leaders, Trump has dismissed credible allegations that Putin uses violence against his opponents. Trump said in 2015, “I think it would be despicable if that took place, but I haven’t seen any evidence that he killed anybody, in terms of reporters.” Asked again in February 2017, Trump deflected, saying, “There are a lot of killers. Do you think our country is so innocent?”

Trump mulled returning spy bases to Russia

The Washington Post reported in May 2017 that the Trump administration considered returning two diplomatic compounds to Russia. The Obama administration expelled Russian diplomats and seized the compounds in New York and Maryland after the 2016 election, claiming they were used for “intelligence” purposes. The compounds were never returned to Russia.

President Trump with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office

Trump gave Russia classified intelligence

In a shocking move during the early months of his presidency, Trump shared highly classified intelligence with two senior Russian officials during an Oval Office meeting in May 2017. The intelligence, which was about ISIS, was sensitive enough that it could have exposed a vulnerable source. The unplanned disclosure by Trump rattled even many of his Republican allies.

Trump criticized and alienated NATO allies

Trump has repeatedly attacked NATO, aligning himself with Putin, who wants to weaken the alliance. Trump said NATO was “obsolete,” rattling European leaders. At his first NATO summit in May 2017, Trump scolded other countries for not spending enough on defense and declined to commit to NATO’s mutual defense pledge. (Trump later said he supported the mutual defense provision.) He has also said he wanted to withdraw from NATO, according to The New York Times, though it hasn’t happened.

Trump was reluctant to sign Russian sanctions

Lawmakers passed a bipartisan bill in July 2017 imposing new sanctions against Russia, even though Trump administration officials reportedly tried to water down the language. Trump reluctantly signed the bill, but claimed the new law contained “clearly unconstitutional provisions.” Trump had little choice in the matter because the bill had passed with veto-proof majorities: 419-3 in the House and 98-2 in the Senate. (The Treasury Department followed up with several rounds of hard-hitting sanctions.)

Trump proposed a cyber unit with Russia

After the July 2017 meeting of G20 leaders, Trump said he had spoken with Putin about “forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit” to combat “election hacking.” Trump quickly backtracked after lawmakers from both parties said it would be ridiculous to work with Russia on cybersecurity because Russia was responsible for egregious hacks against American targets, including during the 2016 election.

Trump thanked Putin for expelling US diplomats

Trump thanked Putin for expelling hundreds of US diplomats from Russia in August 2017, saying, “I want to thank him because we’re trying to cut down our payroll.” Putin kicked out the officials to retaliate against US sanctions. Trump’s comments conflicted with the State Department, which said the mass expulsion was “uncalled for.” (Trump later said he was being sarcastic.)

Trump eased sanctions on Deripaska

The Treasury Department in 2018 sanctioned Russian oligarch and Putin ally Oleg Deripaska, along with three companies linked to him, over his support for Russian interference in the 2016 election. But by January 2019, the Trump administration lifted some of these sanctions. In a bipartisan rebuke, 11 Senate Republicans supported a Democratic resolution calling for the sanctions to remain.

Trump congratulated Putin on his sham election

Ignoring the advice of several top national security aides, Trump congratulated Putin on his March 2018 reelection victory. Putin got 77% of the vote, but Western observers declared that the election “lacked genuine competition” and took place in an “overly controlled legal and political environment.” Trump’s critics said he had given the election legitimacy it did not deserve.

Trump balked at sanctions for Skripal poisoning

Trump privately complained about US sanctions intended to punish Russia after one of its ex-spies was poisoned in the United Kingdom, according to Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton. The US and UK blamed Russia for trying to assassinate the defector, Sergei Skripal. After the sanctions were announced in August 2018, Trump tried to rescind them and said the US was “being too tough on Putin,” according to Bolton’s memoir.

Trump nixed US statement about Russian war

In summer 2018, Trump blocked his administration from releasing a statement on the 10th anniversary of the Russia-Georgia war, according to Bolton’s memoir. Bolton said European leaders noticed Trump’s silence and “became even more concerned about American resolve.” Russia invaded its neighbor Georgia during the five-day war in 2008, and still occupies two breakaway territories.

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban and President Donald Trump in the Oval Office on May 13, 2019.

Trump praised pro-Russian leaders in Europe

On several occasions, Trump has praised controversial far-right European leaders who have been shunned by most US officials because of their close ties to Putin. Trump met at the White House with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a top Kremlin ally. He praised the campaign of French politician Marine Le Pen, whose party previously got millions from a Russian bank.

Trump didn’t publicly condemn Russian attack

According to congressional testimony, Trump declined to publicly condemn a Russian attack against Ukrainian military vessels in November 2018, even though the State Department prepared a statement for him. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized Russia’s “dangerous escalation.” The White House didn’t say anything, but Trump canceled a meeting with Putin.

Trump defended Soviet invasion of Afghanistan

During a January 2019 Cabinet meeting, Trump defended the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. He said the Soviet Union “was right” to invade in 1979 because “terrorists were going into Russia.” The comments puzzled many observers, who noted that the Soviets had invaded to bolster a communist government and the US had backed Afghan militants who fought the Soviets.

Trump asked allies to let Russia back in the G7

Breaking with American allies, Trump repeatedly called for Russia to be invited back into the Group of Seven. Russia was suspended from the working group of leading industrial nations in 2014 after Putin annexed Crimea. At the August 2019 G7 summit in France, Trump pressed the other leaders to include Russia at the 2020 gathering. They balked at the request, which would have handed a huge victory to Putin without any concessions.

Trump’s Syria withdrawal gave Putin a boost

Trump announced in October 2019 that US troops were withdrawing from northern Syria. The abrupt move cleared the way for Turkey to conquer territories previously controlled by the US and allied Kurdish militias. It also gave Russia a golden opportunity to expand its influence and swiftly take over abandoned US outposts and checkpoints. Trump’s move was a boon for Putin.

Trump repeated Kremlin talking points on ISIS

After announcing the Syria withdrawal, Trump repeated Kremlin talking points about ISIS. He said, “Russia hates ISIS as much as the United States does” and that they are equal partners in the fight. But Trump’s comments don’t reflect the reality on the ground: Since intervening in Syria in 2015, the Russian military has focused its airstrikes on anti-government rebels, not ISIS.

President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin attend a joint press conference after a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018.

Full credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images