Trump halts his own team's plans for sanctions on Russia

Image: U.S. President Donald Trump signs a presidential proclamation placing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports while surrounded by workers from the steel and aluminum industries at the White House in Washington
U.S. President Donald Trump announces a presidential proclamation placing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports while surrounded by workers from the steel...

On CBS's "Face the Nation," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley didn't just defend the airstrikes in Syria that Donald Trump had approved two days earlier; she also made some news about the Assad regime's allies.

Asked if Syria's patrons would face any new consequences, Haley replied, "Absolutely. So you will see that Russian sanctions will be coming down. [Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin] will be announcing those on Monday, if he hasn't already."

The Putin government, not surprisingly, condemned the administration's plans. Soon after, as the Washington Post reported, Trump decided to "put the brakes on" the whole idea.

... 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.

The article added that after Haley's on-air comments, "the Trump administration notified the Russian Embassy in Washington that the sanctions were not in fact coming, a Russian Foreign Ministry official said Monday."

This is, of course, a pretty dramatic reversal. As of Sunday morning, one of the Trump administration's top voices on foreign policy told the world -- in no uncertain terms -- that Russia would soon face a new round of economic sanctions. By the time the new sanctions were supposed to be announced, the president had decided to halt the entire plan and notify Russian officials to effectively disregard what Nikki Haley had said.

There are two broad takeaways from a story like this. The first is that the American president sure does seem cautious when it comes to taking actions that Moscow won't like. I wonder why that is.

The second is the Trump administration is routinely divided against itself, especially on matters of foreign policy, and especially when it's Nikki Haley sharing her perspective with the public.

As we discussed in the fall, on U.S. policy towards Syria, for example, Haley’s stated line was largely the opposite of what we heard from other leading Trump administration officials. When the president dismissed the need for a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians, Haley said the exact opposite a day later. Even Haley’s line on U.S. policy towards Venezuela also contradicted Trump’s State Department.

And when it comes to Russia's attack on our 2016 elections, there is no meaningful overlap between Haley's rhetoric and the president's rhetoric. It's as if they're on two entirely different teams.

As the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Haley needs to maintain credibility and the perception that she can speak on behalf of the administration. Right now, that's clearly not going well.