On Sunday, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, announced that the Treasury Department would be rolling out tough new sanctions against Russia on Monday as punishment for its continued support of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
But not 24 hours later, the White House threw Haley under the bus with a clear, contradictory message: Not so fast.
“We are considering additional sanctions on Russia and a decision will be made in the near future,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said.
Sources familiar with the sanctions rollout process described a chaotic back-and-forth as lawmakers and staffers were struggling to figure out what Haley was exactly referring to. It was unlikely that Haley, who has been lauded by lawmakers from both parties for her tough anti-Kremlin positions, would have misspoken so egregiously if a sanctions regime was not already in the works.
By Monday morning, the congressional committees that were responsible for drafting a sweeping sanctions bill last summer had not heard from the Treasury Department, indicating that Haley had apparently spoken too soon. But later Monday, The Washington Post reported that President Donald Trump personally intervened after Haley’s statement and halted the sanctions plan in its tracks, undercutting his U.N. ambassador in remarkable fashion.
Capitol Hill sources directly involved in the rollout of congressional mandated sanctions indicated that they had not received a heads up from the administration about impending financial punishments against Russia beyond the coordinated airstrikes that the U.S., along with its French and British partners, conducted on Friday and Saturday. The absence of such a notification from the administration led Capitol Hill staffers to speculate that the White House was scrambling to clean up Haley’s statements.
“The reversal is astounding,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote in a tweet. “Either Pres. Trump doesn’t think we need more action or they cant handle a simple rollout announcement. Mr. President, get your act together. What’s the strategy?”
Haley, who has built up a reputation as a Russia hawk during her time as U.N. ambassador, said on CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin “will be announcing those [sanctions] on Monday, if he hasn't already.” The Treasury Department did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment on the matter, but on Monday it became clear that Mnuchin had neither announced those actions nor were they even finalized.
Haley said the imminent sanctions would target some Russian companies and entities that do business with the Assad regime, whom the U.S. and its allies have blamed for a chemical-weapons attack on innocent civilians in the war-torn country this month. The financial punishments would specifically target Russian companies whom the U.S. deems provided material support to the Assad regime’s alleged chemical weapons attack and previous assaults on innocents.
But without Trump’s signoff, those measures remain on ice. The president has recently approved some of the tougher anti-Moscow policies of his presidency, including calling out Russian President Vladimir Putin more directly for the Kremlin’s support of Assad. But internal disagreements over how strongly to punish Moscow continue to feed criticisms of Trump and his administration over what critics contend is their deferential posture toward Russia and Putin.
“This sends a message to governments around the world that they can support brutal, criminal behavior without serious consequences,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “President Trump is out of step with the American people, American values—and as this situation has made clear, his own Administration.”