It’s difficult to look at the Trump administration’s swift movements Wednesday on policy shifts toward Syria and Russian sanctions without being suspicious.
Without any perceptible warning to Congress, Trump announced a total troop withdrawal from Syria, tweeting that the U.S. had “defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.” But it’s far from clear that Syria has been rid of all militants, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, along with top U.S. generals, has repeatedly warned that full withdrawal from Syria now could easily backfire. Further, key GOP senators seem not to have been briefed about the deliberations or the announcement in advance.
SASC Chair Jim Inhofe, on the U.S. withdrawal in Syria/what it means for the region, per @ElizLanders: "As I said, I didn’t know about it, I wasn’t consulted and so without the full knowledge as to why that decision was made apparently so abruptly, I can’t answer that question.”
— Phil Mattingly (@Phil_Mattingly) December 19, 2018
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been a big ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ever since Moscow began providing him with military support in 2015. In other words, Putin will be pleased.
The other Wednesday surprise came when Trump’s Treasury Department announced its intention to lift sanctions on three Russian corporations partially controlled by Oleg Deripaska, a Putin ally, powerful oligarch, and recurring figure in many of the special counsel’s inquiries related to Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Bloomberg writes:
Deripaska will remain under U.S. sanctions and his property will remain blocked, but Treasury intends to remove financial restrictions on Rusal, En+ Group Plc and JSC EuroSibEnergo. The move will take effect in 30 days unless Congress blocks the action, the Treasury Department said in a statement Wednesday.
As the New York Times wrote last month, Deripaska has been trying to get out from under the sanctions ever since the U.S. government imposed them in April.
A billionaire who controls the world’s second-largest aluminum company, Mr. Deripaska faced possible ruin. […] Successive administrations have limited his ability to travel to the United States.
Even Mr. Putin was unable to resolve the situation when he interceded personally with Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama on Mr. Deripaska’s behalf.
Beyond Deripaska’s personal benefit from Treasury’s latest move, there’s also a potentially legitimate explanation for partially lifting the sanctions, according to Bloomberg.
Sanctioning of the world’s largest aluminum supplier [Rusal] outside of China threatened a worldwide shortage of the metal, forcing [Treasury Sec. Steve] Mnuchin to backtrack. Since April, he has closely monitored the issuance of extensions to the sanctions on Rusal as Treasury negotiated a deal with Deripaska to save the company from the full range of financial restrictions.
The deal includes Deripaska “cutting his direct and indirect share ownership below 50 percent in each company.” On the same day, Treasury also imposed a new round of sanctions on 15 Russian intelligence operatives who have been linked to 2016 election interference.
In any other administration, logical explanations for seemingly sudden policy decisions would be not only believable, but assumed. The problem with such shifts in this administration is that Trump’s integrity has been so tarnished and his contacts with Russia so profuse and questionable that it’s difficult for many Trump-doubting Americans to know where the line is between reasonable skepticism of Trump’s motivations and conspiracy theory.
Both policy moves also came on the same day Trump was put on notice by Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the incoming chair of the House Oversight panel, that a wave of new investigations are heading his way in 2019. Cummings issued document requests to more than 50 entities, including federal agencies, Trump’s family business, and his personal attorneys.
So the more it looks like Trump’s power has an expiration date—whether that’s through actual removal or just political siege—the more questionable each and every one of Trump’s unilateral moves becomes, whether one agrees with the policies or not.