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The problem with Trump's proof of being 'tough' toward Russia

Last year, Trump expelled 60 Russian diplomats, which he now says is proof of his toughness. But the closer one looks, the less that story helps him.
Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office
President Donald Trump speaks before signing an executive order establishing regulatory reform officers and task forces in US agencies in Washington, DC on February 24, 2017.

Donald Trump was still on the defensive yesterday, after siding with Russia's Vladimir Putin over the United States on Monday, but the Republican president nevertheless felt comfortable boasting at the White House yesterday, "There been no president ever as tough as I have been on Russia."

For proof, Trump said, "Look at ambassadors not there." (He probably meant "diplomats," not "ambassadors," but the president isn't great with details.)

A couple of hours later, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders echoed the point, arguing that Trump "has been tougher on Russia than anybody," and pointing specifically to the fact that the administration has "expelled 60 Russian operatives from the United States."

If it seems as if this keeps coming up, it's not your imagination. Last week, during a press conference alongside British Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump also bragged about having expelled 60 Russian diplomats, adding, "And Germany did three, as an example. So Germany -- big country, powerful country -- they did three. The fake news doesn't want to talk about it."

OK, let's talk about it.

Just two months into his presidency, the Trump administration did, in fact, expel 60 Russian diplomats and suspected intelligence operatives from the United States. It was part of a coordinated effort with our European allies, which were making similar and simultaneous moves.

The Washington Post later reported that White House aides briefed him on the developments at his Mar-a-Lago resort, and the president made clear at the time that he didn't want the United States to be seen "taking the lead" on this, but rather, wanted to be sure that we were simply "matching" Europe's numbers.

Trump apparently "erupted" soon after.

The next day, when the expulsions were announced publicly, Trump erupted, officials said. To his shock and dismay, France and Germany were each expelling only four Russian officials — far fewer than the 60 his administration had decided on.The president, who seemed to believe that other individual countries would largely equal the United States, was furious that his administration was being portrayed in the media as taking by far the toughest stance on Russia.His briefers tried to reassure him that the sum total of European expulsions was roughly the same as the U.S. number."I don't care about the total!" the administration official recalled Trump screaming. The official, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

One of the Post's sources described the president's reaction, saying, "There were curse words, a lot of curse words."

More than a year later, desperate to find proof of his "toughness" toward his allies in Moscow, Trump points to these expulsions as evidence of his bold aggression when it comes to Russia.

But at the time, the American president didn't want to be seen as taking an especially tough stand on Russia, and he lashed out angrily after learning that countries such as Germany were making fewer expulsions than the United States.

If Trump wants to present us with proof of his antagonistic postures toward Russia, perhaps he should point to something else?