Note: This piece is overwhelmingly indebted to the timeline published by justsecurity.org in July 2018; in places it's little more than an abridgment of that, fosusing on the single issue of sanctions.
The first time Donald Trump had a conversation with Vladimir Putin, as far as we know, was on 14 November 2016, following up on Putin's congratulatory telegram immediately after the election, and I don't mean to say I have any sinister suspicions there was an earlier talk, I only mean to say we probably wouldn't know if there was, and we really only know about this one because the Kremlin issued a statement on it, on which The New York Times wrote a report:
The two agreed “on the absolutely unsatisfactory state of bilateral relations,” said the statement, and they both endorsed the idea of undertaking joint efforts “to normalize relations and pursue constructive cooperation on the broadest possible range of issues”
hoped that Moscow could build a “collaborative dialogue” with Washington on the bases of “equality, mutual respect and noninterference in the other’s internal affairs,” the release said.The statement didn't mention the economic and diplomatic sanctions the US had been imposing on Russia since 18 individual Russians were sanctioned in 2013 under the provisions of the Magnitsky Act, and in conjunction with the European Union, after Russia's invasion of Ukraine and seizure of Crimea and the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in 2014, "so-called sectoral sanctions were imposed against major Russian energy firms, financial institutions, parastatal organizations, and state-owned corporations [including] restricted access to global capital markets, which had served as a major funding source until that point." But it would hardly have been a surprise if Putin had wanted to talk about them, as a part of what made the situation "absolutely unsatisfactory", and I don't think it would have aroused a lot of critical comment, even. The Times mentioned sanctions in its story, in a quirky little paragraph of early Trumpology:
Some analysts, however, have suggested that Mr. Trump is unpredictable and the traditional Republican penchant for painting Russia as a dire threat could still emerge. The Putin administration is hoping that the West will lift sanctions imposed over the crisis in Ukraine.But then in the weeks leading up to the inauguration the call was followed up by a series of encounters between Russian officials and Trump transition workers that were carried out in secret—we didn't learn about them until months later, and at first the Trump people had denied them all:
- the meeting of 1 or 2 December of Kushner and Flynn with Ambassador Kislyak in Trump Tower, where a "secure channel of communication" between the Trump team and the Kremlin was discussed, to be set up in the Russian embassy or a Russian consulate, meaning the Russian government would be able to listen in and the US government wouldn't;
- the meeting of 13 December between Kushner and Sergey Gorkov, chairman of a sanctioned Russian bank, Vnesheconombank (VEB), at Kislyak's request, because, according to Kushner (once he had finally admitted to it, in testimony before the Senate and House intelligence committees), Gorkov was close to Putin, to discuss the "poor state of US-Russian relations" but somehow never mentioned sanctions at all—while VEB said the discussions were about Kushner family businesses, which Kushner also denied (of course it would be illegal for him to have business with a sanctioned bank); and
- the phone calls between Flynn and Kislyak on 29 December, the day Obama announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, as punishment for the election interference, and Flynn persuaded the Russians not to retaliate in turn, to prepare for a positive environment after the inauguration (when Trump would be able to lift them, the implication is, but this is not on the record we have—the record we have still not including transcripts of the calls)—this was of course the subject of the lies to the FBI to which Flynn has pleaded guilty;
- the tweets of 3-4 January in which Trump scoffs at the intelligence claims that Russia interfered in the election (I don't think it's too fanciful to think of this as a communication with the Putin government, your mileage may vary);
- the meeting of 11 January in the Seychelles, convened by UAE adviser and evil person George Nader on behalf of UAE Crown Prince Mohammed, between Erik Prince and a Putin-tied Russian wealth fund manager called Kirill Dmitriev, where Prince is said to have tried to gauge how committed Russia was to the Iran deal but the emphasis seems to have been, again, on this creation of a secret back channel through which Trump and the Russians would communicate; and
- the meeting of 17 January between Dmitriev and Anthony Scaramucci, the future 11-day-wonder White House Director of Communications, at the annual Davos conference in Switzerland, where who knows what was discussed but afterwards the Mooch gave an interview to the Russian TASS news agency discussing the uselessness of sanctions:
"You know the Russian people better than me," he said. "I think the sanctions had in some ways an opposite effect because of Russian culture. I think the Russians would eat snow if they had to survive. And so for me the sanctions probably galvanized the nation with the nation's President."I don't know about you, but I'm starting to suspect Kushner may not have been entirely truthful with the intelligence committees when he came over to tell the truth about the meetings he'd repeatedly lied about before, and sanctions could have been discussed a lot.
And then immediately after the election, as Michael Isikoff reported for Yahoo News, again in secret,
In the early weeks of the Trump administration, former Obama administration officials and State Department staffers fought an intense, behind-the-scenes battle to head off efforts by incoming officials to normalize relations with Russia, according to multiple sources familiar with the events.
Unknown to the public at the time, top Trump administration officials, almost as soon as they took office, tasked State Department staffers with developing proposals for the lifting of economic sanctions, the return of diplomatic compounds and other steps to relieve tensions with Moscow.
These efforts to relax or remove punitive measures imposed by President Obama in retaliation for Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and meddling in the 2016 election alarmed some State Department officials, who immediately began lobbying congressional leaders to quickly pass legislation to block the move, the sources said.Meanwhile, in February, the situation of national security adviser Michael Flynn, as some of the lies he'd told about those December phone calls started getting called out, became untenable, and he was fired on the 13th, though he did last longer than the deputy attorney general who caught him lying, Sally Yates (she may have been fired for her correct insistence that the president's proposed Muslim ban was unconstitutional, which proved correct).
After which the actual collusion record settles down a bit. Though there was the time in April when US ambassador Nikki Haley took to criticizing Russia over its election interference in the US and its backing of the monster dictator Bashar al-Assad in Syria, until Trump showed up for a lunch of the Security Council ambassadors and told them, "Now, does everybody like Nikki? Because if you don’t … she can easily be replaced" (yes, Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council and the ambassador was there) and a couple of days later Secretary of State Tillerson informed her by email that, from then on, her comments should be “re-cleared with Washington if they are substantively different from the building blocks, or if they are on a high-profile issue."
The first piece of actual sanctions relief came on 10 May—that's the day after FBI director Comey was fired—when Tillerson met with Ambassador Kislyak to tell him plans were going forward to reverse Obama's seizure of a couple of Russian spy compounds, with no conditions and no questions asked:
the U.S. would no longer require Russia to unfreeze the construction of an American consulate in St. Petersburg before considering handing back seized Russian diplomatic compounds in Maryland and New York as part of the Obama sanctions for election interference.At the end of that meeting is when, you'll recall, Tillerson brought Kislyak and Foreign Minister Lavrov over to the White House for the unscheduled Oval Office session with the president where Trump told them how pleased he was to have gotten rid of Comey and the "pressure because of Russia", and slipped them an unexpected lagniappe of Israeli intelligence on Syrian extremist bomb-making activities, and the US press was not allowed in, though TASS was, and gleefully published pictures of Trump looking as sick and exhausted as the dying Boris Yeltsin, and seemed to know more about what was said at the meeting than the US government did, and Lavrov told the Russian journalists,
“At present, our dialogue is not as politicized as it used to be during Obama’s presidency. The Trump administration, including the President himself and the Secretary of State, are people of action who are willing to negotiate.”A couple of weeks later, the first indications emerged that the administration didn't know what it was doing about sanctions, with the characteristic Trumpy chaos, and the same person asked to represent both sides on successive days:
May 25 – 26, 2017 — Arriving in Europe with Trump, top White House economic advisor Gary Cohn tells reporters that the U.S. is “looking at” the future of sanctions on Russia. When pressed on what the current U.S. position is, he says: “Right now we don’t have a position.” The following day, Cohn counters that statement, saying the U.S. will not ease sanctions on Russia and, “if anything, we would probably look to get tougher.”Then came Trump's remarkable performance where he suggested he might dump NATO because he thought the members were supposed to be giving the US protection money, like a neighborhood racket, and the Europeans started getting really nervous. In the US, too, congressmembers stepped up their work on preparing a new bill regulating sanctions in such a way as to force the president to impose them when Congress wanted him to, and Tillerson came to the Hill to complain,
June 13, 2017 — While testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Tillerson suggests that the Trump administration may not support a bipartisan bill that issues new, stronger sanctions against Russia for interference in the 2016 election. Tillerson notes the administration has communication channels open with Russia and does not want to block those avenues with “something new,”signaling that the White House would prefer a softer version of the bill. This sentiment is echoed by a senior administration official who suggests that the administration would work with House Republicans to “defang” the bill should it pass the Senate....which it did, 98-2, while the House stalled, for apparently technical reasons; however on 20 June an alternative hypothesis comes out:
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer releases a statement shortly thereafter, saying that what House Republicans are “really doing” is “covering for a president who has been far too soft on Russia.”Meanwhile, Trump was pushing his own people toward a full-scale summit with Putin at the G-20 conference in Hamburg in July, cutting off the CIA training program for the anti-Assad resistance in Syria as an advance gift to the Russian president (Tillerson announced on 3 July that Syria was now entirely Russia's responsibility), and asking staff to come up with more "deliverables" he could offer, to the accompaniment of a good deal of resistance from NSC and State, where they disliked the impression that the administration was giving up on Ukraine.
The bilateral meeting with Putin in Hamburg took place on 7 July, in the absence of NSC advisor H.R. McMaster and his Russia expert deputy Fiona Hill, lasting two hours and 20 minutes, and after the formal dinner spent another hour or so together with just one Russian translator and no Americans. Reports don't say they discussed sanctions at all, but a curious detail from Trump came when he informed
the New York Times in the interview that the two leaders exchanged “pleasantries” and discussed Russia’s adoption policy. Russia prohibited adoptions by U.S. parents after Congress’s passage of the Magnitsky Act in 2012, which sanctions Russian officials accused of human rights violations.Which fans of the 9 June Trump Tower meeting will instantly recognize as the code in which they referred to talking about sanctions at that time. (It's also the case that everybody was just realizing that The New York Times was about to publish Donald Junior's probably criminal email exchange about that meeting, and of course Big Donald spent the flight home with Hope Hicks concocting the cover story, with the focus on adoptions, with which they hoped to confuse press and public into missing the details about Russia offering "Clinton dirt" to the Trump campaign.)
Whatever it was, the whole Hamburg thing seems to have had a shock effect on the House of Representatives, which swung into action and finally passed that big sanctions bill, Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), on 25 July with an overwhelming majority, with a provision requiring the president to get congressional approval on any rollback of sanctions; the Senate re-passed it on the 27th and it went for signature to the White House, which immediately began making noises suggesting he might refuse to sign it:
Director Anthony Scaramucci tells CNN that Trump “may veto the sanctions” to “negotiate an even tougher deal against the Russians.” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckerbee Sanders declines to confirm whether Trump will sign the legislation: “We’re going to wait and see what that final legislation looks like and make a decision at that point.”Putin issued his own view in the form of some new sanctions on the US, even before the US enacted any sanctions on him, in the form of expelling 755 US diplomats from Russia, three fifths of the total, which Trump acknowledged with the cheerful remark that the US would be saving some money, and no retaliation. But Trump finally signed the sanctions bill on 2 August, with an angry signing statement complaining that the provision requiring Congress to sign off on a sanctions rollback was an assault on executive power, and an express hope that sanctions on Russia (as opposed to Iran and North Korea) could be gotten rid of:
We hope there will be cooperation between our two countries on major global issues so that these sanctions will no longer be necessary.But with no reference, I think, to the Magnitsky Act, Ukraine, or interference in the 2016 election. On 31 August the State Department did announce the closure of the Russian consulate general in San Francisco, a particularly important intelligence-gathering spot, and a couple of annexes, in belated response to the expulsion of the 755 US personnel from Russia.
CAATSA gave the administration deadlines to implement new sanctions, by 1 October for Russia, and the administration blew that one off until 31 October, when they finally provided a list of Russian people and entities that you could be sanctioned for doing business with, to take effect 29 January, seven months after the bill was passed.
Trump had an informal meeting with Putin in Vietnam on 11 November. We don't know whether sanctions were discussed there, On 13 December he was asked to greenlight a sale of $47 million worth of antitank missiles and launchers to Ukraine, to which he agreed, somewhat to the surprise of Mattis, Pompeo, Haley, and Tillerson (It had taken a long time to convince him—“He would say, ‘Why is this our problem? Why not let the Europeans deal with Ukraine?” a U.S. official said"—and he seems to have been won over by the prospect of the money the US could make from Ukraine as a long-term customer), but with the proviso that the sale should be done on the quiet, with no public announcement. But on the 29 January deadline the administration announced that it wasn't going to need to impose any sanctions on Russia under CAATSA at all:
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert says that the administration will not immediately implement sanctions and that the law is already having its intended effect of reducing defense acquisitions from Russia. “If the law is working, sanctions or specific entities or individuals will not need to be imposed because the legislation is, in fact, serving as a deterrent,” Nauert says. She does not give a specific timeframe for when the administration might begin imposing sanctions.Treasury did issue a list of 114 Russian political people and 96 biznesmeni, but it wasn't in fact a sanctions list and had been largely cribbed from Forbes Magazine. Meanwhile reports kept coming out (a) that Russia was planning to interfere with the 2018 election and (b) the US had no plans to do anything about it; the US Cyber Command had no instructions, the State Department had not spent a dime of the $120 million allocated to the purpose.
On 15 March the administration finally imposed sanctions on a list of 19 individuals (16 of them people Mueller had indicted in February, so that the White House had clearly done zero work to identify them) and five entities, none of them from Putin's power circle, 14 months into the administration. It was time to start wondering how serious Trump was about this stuff, if you hadn't started earlier.
Follow-up post bringing the record up to the present is here.