How should the Trump administration deal with Russia? Turns out that the carrot-and-stick approach gets the most support from American voters, even if we’re more enthusiastic about the stick. A new WaPo/ABC poll shows majority support for a Donald Trump-Vladimir Putin summit meeting, but much larger — and bipartisan — majorities for more sanctions:
Nearly 7 in 10 Americans support tougher U.S. sanctions against Russia, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll that also finds roughly half the public saying President Trump has done “too little” to criticize Russia for alleged violations of international law.
Despite support for penalizing Russia, 52 percent of adults say Trump should invite Vladimir Putin to the White House in an effort to improve U.S.-Russia relations, while 42 percent say Trump should not do so, because it would grant Putin legitimacy.
The legitimacy argument is odd. No one doubts that Putin is the leader of Russia, although there are certainly doubts about how he wields power and the methods he applies to elections. We have diplomatic relations and head-of-state contacts with a variety of nations where that’s true without necessarily those contacts being portrayed as an endorsement of the leader in question. The purpose is to dial down tensions, not to cheer each other’s existence.
For instance, the upcoming (presumably, anyway) meeting between Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un will be seen as an opportunity to avoid war, not as a Trump endorsement of Kim, which wouldn’t be useful for either nation. Given all the friction points between Russia and the US — Ukraine, Crimea, Syria, cyberspace, the Skripal poisoning, missile-defense systems in eastern Europe, and so on — a meeting between Putin and Trump should be in the same category. In fact, it might be even more urgently needed than the Kim-Trump summit. Even if one is inclined to consider Putin illegitimate, the threat Russia represents isn’t.
In fairness, the numbers in the poll for the two summits are about the same, although the expectations remain low:
The results on both countries underscore a longstanding public preference for talking rather than fighting between nations. Indeed, six in 10 oppose Trump threatening military action against Pyongyang. It’s also notable that most support a summit with Kim even though, in an ABC/Post poll last fall, just 32 percent trusted Trump to act responsibly in dealing with North Korea. In January, 52 percent expressed concern Trump would launch an unjustified nuclear attack; surely talks are preferable.
Well, yeah, although it seems very doubtful that Trump would launch a first-strike nuclear attack, simply because there are plenty of other weapons to use in a “bloody nose” strategy. China would retaliate immediately for a nuclear strike, too, not to mention what the remnants of the Kim regime might cook up. Just because 52 percent of respondents worry about a scenario doesn’t mean it’s a probability or even a possibility.
Let’s go back to sanctions on Russia. The support for more punitive action gets majorities across all partisan demographics, scoring 68% overall and the same among Republicans and independents, with 74% of Democrats supporting the idea. It’d be a good political move for the White House to at least propose some new sanctions, although they just got done launching fresh sanctions earlier this month that took special aim at Putin’s inner circle. So why are they balking after Nikki Haley’s announcement? The Washington Post reports that Trump wants more time to consider them and to see whether the existing sanctions will have an impact:
Preparations to punish Russia anew for its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government over an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria caused consternation at the White House. Haley had said on CBS News’s “Face the Nation” that sanctions on Russian companies behind the equipment related to Assad’s alleged chemical weapons attack would be announced Monday by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
But Trump conferred with his national security advisers later Sunday and told them he was upset the sanctions were being officially rolled out because he was not yet comfortable executing them, according to several people familiar with the plan.
Administration officials said the economic sanctions were under serious consideration, along with other measures that could be taken against Russia, but said Trump had not given final authorization to implement them. Administration officials said Monday it was unlikely Trump would approve any additional sanctions without another triggering event by Russia, describing the strategy as being in a holding pattern.
Bear in mind that the new sanctions were only three days old at the time this survey was taken (April 8-11). One can read this as a desire for even more sanctions or perhaps as an endorsement of the new sanctions that had just been rolled out. In any case, it makes sense to give the new sanctions more than ten days to gauge their effect before amplifying and expanding them. If Trump decides to push forward, though, the political consensus for them will make additional sanctions a very safe policy.