President Donald Trump gave approval last week for rolling out airstrikes in Syria as well as new sanctions on Russia, according to three senior administration officials—but U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley wasn’t briefed on changes to the sanctions plan before announcing it Sunday on national television.
The episode marks the latest instance of members of Trump’s team appearing out of sync with each other or with the president on foreign affairs.
“Russia sanctions were a part of the agreed-upon plan going into the strike and going into the weekend,” said a senior administration official. “As recently as Saturday that was reconfirmed as part of the plan.”
The president halted the sanctions plan on Sunday night, according to a Washington Post report.
The incident is part of a pattern, administration officials say, in which the president has signed off on policy proposals only to change course days, weeks, or months later, undermining some of his closest advisers and Cabinet members and leaving them flat-footed.
Senior administration officials gave divergent explanations Tuesday for why the president backed off imposing sanctions on Russia after Haley’s public announcement.
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told reporters Tuesday that Haley simply “got out ahead of the curve” on the sanctions, which she said on “Face the Nation” would be announced by Mnuchin “on Monday, if he hasn’t already.” She also made reference to a Monday sanctions rollout during a separate appearance on “Fox News Sunday.”
“There might have been some momentary confusion,” Kudlow added.
But another administration official suggested that the Treasury Department didn’t have the sanctions package ready to go. Russia’s muted response to Friday’s strike also gave the administration reason to hold off on the sanctions implementation, the official said.
Others, however, say the president simply changed his mind, though it’s unclear whether he did so before or after Haley’s television appearance.
Over the weekend, Trump also fumed over Vice President Mike Pence’s plans to hire Haley’s senior adviser, Jon Lerner, as his own national security adviser, due to his role producing anti-Trump television ads during the Republican primary, and Lerner on Sunday informed the White House he would not take the position.
Several national security officials that Haley did not learn of any decision not to move immediately on sanctions before she appeared on the Sunday television shows, a communications snafu that sparked a widespread response among foreign officials. Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov dismissed the idea that the sanctions could be related to Russia’s support for the Assad regime and denounced them as “international economic raiding.”
The problem may have been compounded by recent churn on the National Security Council, which is meant to coordinate foreign policy decisions and announcements. Trump’s new national security adviser, John Bolton, has only been on the job for a little over a week and numerous NSC officials—including communications director Michael Anton, who was in charge of messaging—have recently departed.
Some in the West Wing have called Haley’s statement an error, but she herself has not apologized for it.
Haley has at times departed from the official White House talking points, telling CBS News late last year that women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct “deserve to be heard” while the White House has dismissed their claims out of hand.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Monday in a statement written with Mnuchin on the way to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida for a summit with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe that the administration is still considering additional sanctions but has made no final decision. “We are considering additional sanctions on Russia and a decision will be made in the near future,” she said in a statement.
The White House’s course reversal came amid reports both that he has been distracted in briefings and that his top aides have, at times, pushed him to take a tougher stance on Russia than he is comfortable doing – fuming, for example, when he learned that the U.S. had expelled 60 Russian diplomats while Britain and France had pushed out just four.
Since the departure of former secretary of state Rex Tillerson last month, Haley has served as the administration’s de facto secretary of state as his nominee to the post, Mike Pompeo, awaits Senate confirmation.
The president has in the past decided to change course after allowing administration officials to outline plans he has approved. Tillerson in January outlined a plan for a long-term U.S. military presence in Syria only have to have Trump declare two and a half months later he was ready to “let the other people take care of it.”
After a small-scale Syrian chemical attack in early March, former national security adviser H.R. McMaster drew up a series of punitive responses against Russia, including sanctions, at the president’s request. Later that month, the U.S. imposed a round of sanctions and expelled 60 Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning of a Russian ex-spy in the U.K.
Nancy Cook and Andrew Restuccia contributed to reporting.