The inability of the U.S. President Donald Trump to find common ground with Congress turns him into a perhaps pleasant but useless partner for Moscow.
President Trump, after signing the bill, which regulates already implemented sanctions against Russia and Russians, hints at the possibility of new sanctions, and complicates procedures for reviewing them, tried to emphasize that he was forced to take this action. This is understandable: With his record-low rating and lack of significant achievements after the first six months of presidency, he did not have any opportunity to make terms with the solid minded Congress under the conditions of anti-Russian moods in the establishment and media.
Limits of Power
However, Trump was not limited in the expression of his personal opinion regarding the bill. He stated that he considers this bill unconstitutional and that a number of experts agree with him. According to the U.S. Constitution, general foreign policy is the president’s executive privilege, and if the situation was different, the White House lawyers would have already prepared documents for disputes about the constitutionality of the law passed by Congress.
Although, nowadays the power balance is completely different. Congress technically voted non-confidence to the implementation of Trump’s foreign policy, especially in regard to Russia. This is determined by three reasons. Firstly, there is an extremely low support of Trump's Russian policy by U.S. citizens. According to Gallup’s June polls, only 30 percent of the population approve of the president's actions regarding Russia, while 66 percent disapprove of it. The White House’s intentions to build relations with Moscow became its Achilles’ heel, and almost no American politician is missing the opportunity to thrust his or her dagger into it, despite party membership.
Secondly, personal factors in the confrontation between members of Congress and Trump started to play their role. Initially, the president didn’t start building personal relations with Congress and the political party’s elite. He delegated this task to his vice president, Mike Pence, and the chief of staff of the White House, Reince Priebus.* Trump simply tried to break down legislators. The brightest example of that appeared this spring when he presented an ultimatum to the part of his party that did not want to support the bill canceling former President Obama’s health care law — and he lost. From January through March, many members of Congress feared the president and his support team. Now his behavior is normal for them, and the U.S. Capitol has realized that he is not that scary. Trump’s intimidations no longer work, and he didn’t master any other political mechanisms and is unlikely to master them. The recent change of the head of the administrative personnel shows that the president does not see the need to build relations with his party and Congress, but, then, it is unclear how he intends to achieve his goal.
Thirdly, the president’s growing political weakness allows for dictating terms to him. Trump’s “honeymoon,” along with the consternation and obedience of the Congress, came to its end six months after the election. It has become clear that the current administration is not able to implement some reforms, including the positive changes that businesses were hoping for. Health care reform became less ambitious but not more accepted in the Senate. There is no way to access tax reform without making significant changes to health care reform first. For the House of Representatives, which is re-elected in the U.S. every two years, autumn is actually the beginning of a new campaign, and not all Republicans can afford to play on Trump’s side.
Punish Trump and Putin
When they are unable to show the voters some real accomplishments, legislators technically act exactly like Trump — following the trendy mass views. U.S. problems have started having external character, and it has become easier for politicians to blame Russia for all American problems, instead of trying to figure out their own problems in their own circle. Health care reform didn’t pass? Let’s put more sanctions on Russia. The practical agenda for Congress for the next year might be a task to “punish Trump and Putin” – it’s popular and doesn’t cost a thing. The pragmatism of the electoral cycle and the current political process easily defeats the pragmatism of foreign policy actions.
A year ago, I wrote how Russia needs a well-considered and reasonable negotiator in the White House. I meant, of course, a president who can formulate his interests, adhere to them and protect them, including domestic political interests. Trump, who cannot find a common language with his congress and voters, is perhaps a pleasant but useless negotiator for Russia. In this sense, his remarks about signing the draft law on sanctions demonstrate only the inability to change the situation. If earlier the Russian theme was poisonous for Trump's administration, now he himself has become a toxic factor for Russian-American relations. Regardless of his intentions, this relationship can only become worse.
*Editor's Note: As of July 31, 2017, Reince Priebus is no longer the White House chief of staff.