Trump wants to get tougher on Russia without angering Putin

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's national security advisers spent months trying to convince him to sign off on a plan to supply new U.S. weapons to Ukraine to aid in the country's fight against Russian-backed separatists, according to multiple senior administration officials.

Yet when the president finally authorized the major policy shift, he told his aides not to publicly tout his decision, officials said. Doing so, Trump argued, might agitate Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to the officials.

"He doesn't want us to bring it up," one White House official said. "It is not something he wants to talk about."

Officials said the increasingly puzzling divide between Trump's policy decisions and public posture on Russia stems from his continued hope for warmer relations with Putin and stubborn refusal to be seen as appeasing the media or critics who question his silence or kind words for the Russian leader. Critics have suggested Trump's soft approach to Putin has nefarious roots that are somehow entwined with Russia's interference in the 2016 election and the federal investigation into whether the president's campaign colluded in that effort, something the president has repeatedly denied.

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Trump and Putin meet at APEC
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Trump and Putin meet at APEC
DA NANG, VIETNAM - NOVEMBER 11, 2017: Russia's president Vladimir Putin (L) and US president Donald Trump during a photo session of world leaders on the closing day of the 25th APEC Summit. Mikhail Metzel/TASS (Photo by Mikhail Metzel\TASS via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (R) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin talk as they make their way to take the 'family photo' during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' summit in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 11, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SPUTNIK / Mikhail KLIMENTYEV (Photo credit should read MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images)
DA NANG, VIETNAM - NOVEMBER 11, 2017: Russia's president Vladimir Putin (L front) and US president Donald Trump before a photo session of world leaders on the closing day of the 25th APEC Summit. Mikhail Metzel/TASS (Photo by Mikhail Metzel\TASS via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (L) chats with Russia's President Vladimir Putin as they attend the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting, part of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' summit in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 11, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SPUTNIK / Mikhail KLIMENTYEV (Photo credit should read MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (L) chats with Russia's President Vladimir Putin as they attend the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting, part of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' summit in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 11, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SPUTNIK / Mikhail KLIMENTYEV (Photo credit should read MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) and US President Donald Trump talk as they attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' summit in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 11, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SPUTNIK / Mikhail KLIMENTYEV (Photo credit should read MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (R) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin talk as they make their way to take the 'family photo' during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' summit in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 11, 2017. World leaders and senior business figures are gathering in the Vietnamese city of Danang this week for the annual 21-member APEC summit. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / JORGE SILVA (Photo credit should read JORGE SILVA/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (R) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin talk as the make their way to take the 'family photo' during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' summit in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 11, 2017. World leaders and senior business figures are gathering in the Vietnamese city of Danang this week for the annual 21-member APEC summit. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / JORGE SILVA (Photo credit should read JORGE SILVA/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (R) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin walk together to take part in the 'family photo' during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' summit in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 11, 2017. World leaders and senior business figures are gathering in the Vietnamese city of Danang this week for the annual 21-member APEC summit. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / JORGE SILVA (Photo credit should read JORGE SILVA/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (R) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin talk as they make their way to take the 'family photo' during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' summit in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 11, 2017. World leaders and senior business figures are gathering in the Vietnamese city of Danang this week for the annual 21-member APEC summit. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / JORGE SILVA (Photo credit should read JORGE SILVA/AFP/Getty Images)
DA NANG, VIETNAM - NOVEMBER 11, 2017: Russia's president Vladimir Putin (CL front) and US president Donald Trump (CR front) before a photo session of world leaders on the closing day of the 25th APEC Summit. Mikhail Metzel/TASS (Photo by Mikhail Metzel\TASS via Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin talk before a session of the APEC summit in Danang, Vietnam November 11, 2017. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. President Donald Trump, Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quangand and Chinese President Xi Jinping arrive for the family photo session at the APEC Summit in Danang, Vietnam November 11, 2017. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin talk during a break in a session of the APEC summit in Danang, Vietnam November 11, 2017. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
(Front L to R) Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang, Indonesia's President Joko Widodo, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, (back L to R) Russia's President Vladimir Putin, US President Donald Trump and Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha pose during the 'family photo' during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' summit in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 11, 2017. World leaders and senior business figures are gathering in the Vietnamese city of Danang this week for the annual 21-member APEC summit. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / JORGE SILVA (Photo credit should read JORGE SILVA/AFP/Getty Images)
(Front L to R) China's President Xi Jinping, Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang, Indonesia's President Joko Widodo, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, (back L to R) Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, US President Donald Trump, and Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha pose during the 'family photo' during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' summit in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 11, 2017. World leaders and senior business figures are gathering in the Vietnamese city of Danang this week for the annual 21-member APEC summit. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / JORGE SILVA (Photo credit should read JORGE SILVA/AFP/Getty Images)
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Behind the scenes, Trump has only recently taken a sharper tone on Putin, administration officials said, but even then the shift seems more a reaction to the Russian leader challenging the president's strength than a new belief that he's an adversary. Putin's claim earlier this month that Russia has new nuclear-capable weapons that could hit the U.S., a threat he underscored with video simulating an attack, "really got under the president's skin," one official said.

Two officials said Trump told Putin during a phone call last week: "If you want to have an arms race we can do that, but I'll win."

Afterward the president gave no hint of tensions when he told reporters the two leaders had "a very good call" and that he plans to meet with Putin soon to discuss curtailing an arms race.

Within days the split between Trump's Russia policy and public rhetoric was again on display.

The White House announced Monday that the U.S. would expel 60 Russian diplomats - the largest number since the Cold War — in response to Moscow's alleged nerve agent attack in the U.K. on a former spy. It was the brashest U.S. brushback of Russia since Trump took office, yet the president didn't comment on it. And he insisted the White House's message note he "still wants to work with Russia."

Trump was similarly silent Thursday after Russia's announced it would expel U.S. diplomats and close the American consulate in St. Petersburg in response to U.S. moves earlier this week.

"If you want to have an arms race we can do that, but I'll win."

A now familiar back and forth also played out behind the scenes over Trump's decision two weeks ago to levy new sanctions against Russia in response to Moscow's 2016 election meddling and costly worldwide cyberattack last year.

One official involved in the discussions said Trump pushed back on the sanctions proposals by saying Russia's meddling didn't impact the election, but began to relent after Putin's boast about nuclear weapons.

Since approving the sanctions, officials said Trump has given White House officials conflicting messages on whether they should showcase the move publicly. In some instances Trump says he's fine with it, while at other times he's directed aides not to talk about it, they said.

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US consulate in St. Petersburg, Russia
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US consulate in St. Petersburg, Russia
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - MARCH 29, 2018: A view of the US Consulate General at Furstatskaya Street in St Petersburg. Peter Kovalev/TASS (Photo by Peter Kovalev\TASS via Getty Images)
A view through a fence shows the building of the consulate-general of the U.S. in St. Petersburg, Russia March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
A man walks near the building of the consulate-general of the U.S. in St. Petersburg, Russia March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
A view through a fence shows the building of the consulate-general of the U.S. in St. Petersburg, Russia March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
Policemen stand guard outside the building of the consulate-general of the U.S. in St. Petersburg, Russia March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
The state flag of the U.S. flies outside the building of the country's consulate-general in St. Petersburg, Russia March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
The flag of the U.S. flies outside the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg, Russia, July 31, 2017. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
Security officers watch a consulate car entering the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg, Russia, July 31, 2017. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
A security officer speaks with a driver near the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg, Russia, July 31, 2017. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
A police officer walks outside the US Consulate building in St.Petersburg on March 29, 2018. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on March 29, 2018 Moscow would expel 60 US diplomats and close its consulate in Saint Petersburg in a tit-for-tat expulsion over the poisoning of ex-double agent Sergei Skripal. / AFP PHOTO / OLGA MALTSEVA (Photo credit should read OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images)
A security officer stands guard outside the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg, Russia, July 31, 2017. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
A photo taken on March 29, 2018 shows the US Consulate building in St.Petersburg. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on March 29, 2018 Moscow would expel 60 US diplomats and close its consulate in Saint Petersburg in a tit-for-tat expulsion over the poisoning of ex-double agent Sergei Skripal. / AFP PHOTO / OLGA MALTSEVA (Photo credit should read OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images)
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - MARCH 29, 2018: A view of the US Consulate General at Furstatskaya Street in St Petersburg. Peter Kovalev/TASS (Photo by Peter Kovalev\TASS via Getty Images)
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - MARCH 29, 2018: A view of the US Consulate General at Furstatskaya Street in St Petersburg. Peter Kovalev/TASS (Photo by Peter Kovalev\TASS via Getty Images)
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - MARCH 29, 2018: A view of the US Consulate General at Furstatskaya Street in St Petersburg. Peter Kovalev/TASS (Photo by Peter Kovalev\TASS via Getty Images)
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - MARCH 29, 2018: A view of the US Consulate General at Furstatskaya Street in St Petersburg. Peter Kovalev/TASS (Photo by Peter Kovalev\TASS via Getty Images)
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The president's aides have begun to choose their battles or shape their advice to his approach. While the phrase "DO NOT CONGRATULATE" was written on Trump's briefing materials for his call with Putin last week- as first reported by the Washington Post — the president's senior advisers also chose not to orally brief him on the talking point because they didn't think it would make a difference, officials said.

"He'd say what he wants anyway," one official said.

Trump did congratulate Putin, to the dismay — though not surprise — of some of his top national security advisers. Aides said it's unclear if a meeting with Putin will happen because Trump suggests a meeting during nearly all of his calls with foreign leaders as a routine pleasantry.

An argument the president's national security advisers have found to be successful in trying to persuade Trump to adopt aggressive Russia policies is that Putin responds to strength and the way to achieve better relations is to be tougher on him, officials said.

One official described it as a way to "motivate" Trump on Russia.

"He digs in his heels," the official said. "He thinks a better relationship with Russia is good for the U.S., and he really believes he can deliver it."

Moreover, the official said, Trump wants a better U.S. relationship with Russia to prove he can accomplish it.

One official said Trump believes a stable U.S. relationship with Russia is important if the U.S. is going to find resolutions to other crisis, such as the conflict in Syria.

Rex Tillerson, Trump's outgoing secretary of state, led the effort to convince Trump to approve the new arms for Ukraine, officials said. The plan, which Russia opposed, included the sale of U.S.-made Javelin anti-tank missiles that Kiev has for years requested from Washington. President Barack Obama had repeatedly refused to approve Ukraine's request out of concern it would escalate U.S. tensions with Russia.

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Ukraine's war-torn neighborhoods
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Tillerson scheduled a meeting with the president to discuss the plan shortly after the national security team approved it last summer, and he raised the issue with Trump in their regular meetings over the next few months, officials said.

As the policy sat on his desk awaiting his signature, the president expressed concern that it would escalate tensions with Russia and lead to a broader conflict, officials said. They said he also saw Ukraine as a problem for Europe and questioned why he should have to do something about it. And he insisted Ukraine purchase the arms from the U.S., not receive them for free, officials said, before signing off on the policy in December.

"Tillerson just wore him down," a White House official said.

But Trump's ambivalence didn't end, officials said. In one instance afterward Trump complained to his national security adviser H.R. McMaster that his decision could really escalate the situation in Ukraine to a war. McMaster, who was recently ousted, responded by telling the president there already is a war there, to which Trump shot back that the U.S. is not in it, an official said.

Last week as the president's national security team finalized options for a response to the Russian nerve agent attack in the U.K., Trump had a now familiar complaint. He said he wasn't going to take dramatic steps against Russia unless they were met with equal responses from America's European allies, aides said. His edict helped corral a response that included expulsions of more than 100 Russian diplomats in more than two dozen countries.

Trump was presented with three options last Friday during a meeting with his national security team, officials said. He chose the middle option, persuaded most by the idea that if Russia changed its behavior he wouldn't have needed the most strident measures and if it doesn't he has additional actions he can take, officials said.

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