President Trump blocked a new round of sanctions against Russia this week, just one day after former FBI Director James Comey suggested in an interview with ABC News that the Russians may have compromising information on Trump that could be used to blackmail him.
The sanctions, first announced by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley on Sunday, came on the heels of an alleged chemical attack in the rebel-held town of Douma near the Syrian capital of Damascus on April 7. The attack, which left at least 70 people dead, prompted a retaliatory strike from the United States, France, and the U.K. The sanctions were expected to target Russian companies with ties to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons program, as well as several banks and equipment suppliers, according to CNN.
“With the political and diplomatic actions that we’re taking [against Syria] now, we wanted their friends, Iran and Russia, to know that we meant business and that they were going to be feeling the pain from this as well,” Haley said at the time. “You will see that Russian sanctions will be coming down. Secretary Mnuchin will be announcing those on Monday, if he hasn’t already.”
But Monday came and went without any announcement. And by Monday evening, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a statement directly countering Haley’s comments.
“We are considering additional sanctions on Russia and a decision will be made in the near future,” she said. “We are evaluating, but nothing to announce right now.”
White House officials added to the narrative later, telling the Washington Post that Haley had made her comments in “error” and that there are simply been “confusion internally about what the plan was,” despite the fact that Haley checks in with Trump regularly and reviews talking points prior to discussing them publicly.
It wasn’t immediately clear what prompted the reversal. A White House official who spoke with The New York Times initially suggested that Trump believed the sanctions were unnecessary “because Moscow’s response to the airstrike were mainly bluster.” Russian President Vladimir Putin had called the strike an “act of aggression” on Saturday, but did not announce any plans to retaliate.
Later on Monday, while en route to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, Sanders suggested to reporters aboard Air Force One that Trump had blocked the sanctions because he wanted “to have a good relationship with [Russia].”
Trump’s decision to block the sanctions also came one day after former FBI Director James Comey sat down with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos to promote his book, A Higher Loyalty, in his first televised interview since Trump fired him last May. In the interview, Comey claimed Trump was “morally unfit to be president” and stated that it was “possible” the Russians had compromising information that could be used to blackmail Trump.
“I think it’s possible. I don’t know. These are more words I never thought I’d utter about a president of the United States, but it’s possible,” he said, responding to a question about Trump’s fixation on the notorious Russia dossier, compiled by former MI-6 officer Christopher Steele during the 2016 election, which contains allegations of misconduct and conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
The following morning, Trump lashed out at Comey on Twitter — ignoring his blackmail comments and suggesting Comey had committed “many crimes” while serving as FBI director.
White House sources have previously claimed Comey was fired because he would not pledge his loyalty to Trump and would not drop an investigation into former national security adviser and Trump campaign surrogate Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty in December to lying to the FBI about his connections with Russian officials. Flynn is currently cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating claims of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, as well as possibly obstruction of justice by the president.
It’s possible that Trump chose to block the sanctions because he did not believe Russia posed a threat following last Friday’s airstrike. But the timing of Sanders’ announcement, paired with Comey’s interview, is especially curious — suggesting Trump may have good reason to want to remain in Putin’s good graces.
The United States imposed sanctions against Russia earlier in March, in retaliation for its meddling in the 2016 presidential election and other “malicious cyberattacks.” The sanctions targeted 13 individuals and three Russian corporations previously indicted by Mueller for their involvement in a massive social media disinformation campaign meant to tilt the election results in Trump’s favor. That same month, the Trump ordered the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats from U.S. soil, following a series of attacks on former Russian spies living on U.K. soil, a decision made in coordination with Britain, Canada, and 14 European Union member nations.
Speaking to Baltic leaders on April 3, Trump, referring to the sanctions, claimed that “nobody” had been tougher on Russia, but added, “With that being said, I think I could have a very good relationship with President Putin.”