U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who is used to being surrounded by diplomats representing murderous regimes, has found out the most dangerous place for her to be: between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
In a TV interview Sunday, she said the administration would shortly impose additional sanctions on Moscow for its role in Syria's chemical weapons program. The president was watching and "yelled at the television," reports The New York Times. The next day, the White House said it would not add to the sanctions because the president would "like to have a good relationship" with Russia. Economic adviser Larry Kudlow attributed the apparent reversal to Haley's "momentary confusion."
She could have done the country a service by resigning to protest the administration's vacillating on Russia and lying about her. Instead, she tartly rebuked Kudlow: "With all due respect, I don't get confused." Kudlow then admitted that the policy had changed overnight.
Trump takes pride in his self-image as a tough guy. When a protester disrupted a rally, he said, "I'd like to punch him in the face." After the Parkland shootings, he said he probably would have run in to confront the killer, even without a gun.
He's always putting foreign leaders in their place. He's slapped the Chinese with tariffs and said he would welcome a trade war. He's threatened North Korea with destruction. He's denounced the "brutal and corrupt Iranian regime."
Allies are not exempt from his ire. Trump has yelled at Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, slammed British Prime Minister Theresa May on Twitter and derided German Chancellor Angela Merkel's refugee policy as "insane." Mexico, South Korea and Japan often get treated rudely.
But when it comes to Putin, Trump doesn't come across as fierce or demanding. He comes across as scared.
Why is not clear. It may or may not come to light that Trump and his campaign conspired with the Kremlin to win the 2016 election. A video of him consorting with prostitutes in Moscow may or may not emerge. But what we know already is that he practically grovels before Putin.
During the campaign, he said over and over that Putin had been "very nice" to him. He praised Putin as "a strong leader." Strangest of all, he complained about Hillary Clinton's stance on Russia: "She shouldn't be talking so tough."
This approach was at odds with Republican policy for the previous century. The GOP always regarded Russia as a dangerous rival, if not an enemy, that has to be dealt with firmly and skeptically.
Trump doesn't see it that way. He has resisted doing anything that might offend Putin. This isn't because Russia has pulled out of Crimea, abandoned Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, cut back its military or tried to ease tensions with our NATO allies. In fact, Putin has done the opposite.
He even showed a video depicting a Russian missile attack on Florida. Not least important, the Russians interfered in the 2016 election — which Dick Cheney said could "be considered an act of war."
Shortly after taking office, Trump spilled secrets to the Russian ambassador. In a recent phone call, he congratulated Putin for being re-elected — even though he had been advised not to and even though the election was manifestly unfair.
He also invited Putin to the White House. And this call happened after Britain accused Russia of poisoning a former Russian spy and his daughter.
The president has felt compelled to go along with some measures proposed by his advisers in response to Russia's aggressive behavior. But Trump has been reluctant. Though he was persuaded to provide weapons to Ukraine, he wanted it kept secret.
He agreed to banish 60 Russian diplomats over the poisoning. But when France and Germany each expelled only four, reports The Washington Post, he was "furious that his administration was being portrayed in the media as taking by far the toughest stance on Russia."
The docility Trump has so often shown suggests that he is desperate to avoid antagonizing the Russian leader. He doesn't seem to care that appeasement is unpopular. A new ABC News poll found that 74 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of Republicans favor stronger sanctions on Russia. Trump is also acting against the preferences of congressional Republicans — even though it means looking spineless.
He seems to know something that we don't know — and he doesn't want us to know. Maybe the Kremlin doesn't have material that could destroy Trump. But his administration looks like the world's longest hostage video.
Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.