As President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office today, yet another nominee in his forthcoming Cabinet is staking out sharp differences with his views on foreign policy.
Mr. Trump, who has negotiated numerous business deals with Russia, has never uttered a discouraging word about the former Communist KGB agent who runs the country with a dictatorial hand. In fact, he has frequently praised Vladimir Putin as a “strong leader” and a good friend who can be trusted.
But that’s not what South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Mr. Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to the United Nations, thinks of Mr. Putin. She says he is a criminal who cannot be trusted for a minute.
Mrs. Haley told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during her confirmation hearings that the U.S. should be deeply skeptical of Mr. Putin, despite Mr. Trump’s plans for a close, cozy relationship with the Russian president who has invaded neighboring Ukraine and dreams of one day controlling the Baltic nations.
“Russia is trying to show their muscle right now. It’s what they do,” Mrs. Haley told the committee Wednesday. “I don’t think that we can trust them.”
“We have to continue to be very strong back and show them what this new administration is going to be,” she said.
Mrs. Haley’s stinging remarks appeared to be aimed right at Mr. Trump, as much as they were directed to the members of the powerful foreign affairs panel.
But she didn’t stop there, because someone had to state the obvious, even if Mr. Trump wouldn’t dare to criticize the powerful ruler of a country where he has closed some of his best “deals.”
Russia had brazenly invaded a neighboring, sovereign nation and seized parts of Ukrainian territory (including the Crimean peninsula) in 2014, she said.
President Obama had imposed economic sanctions on the Kremlin, but they were little more than a mere slap on the wrist that didn’t appear to hurt the Russian economy.
She bravely suggested that tougher sanctions should be imposed, something Mr. Trump, to this day, refuses to do to his business buddies in Moscow.
But Mrs. Haley’s tough-talking testimony wasn’t over, not by a long shot. She criticized Mr. Putin’s decision to bomb civilian areas of Aleppo to help his evil ally, Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad, subdue the rebel patriots who sought to topple him from power.
Those bombing raids killed and maimed thousands of defenseless men, women, children and the elderly, burying untold numbers beneath tons of rubble, while Mr. Trump and the rest of the world looked the other way.
But not Nikki Haley who told the committee that Vladimir Putin is guilty of war crimes, a charge that former Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, Mr. Trump’s nominee to be secretary of State (and Haley’s boss), refuses to embrace.
Mr. Tillerson has also had very close, friendly ties with Putin over many years of lucrative business deals that enriched his company and Russian oil executives as well. But at his confirmation hearings, he maintained he was not privy to any evidence to support charges of war crimes.
Does he read newspapers?
Yet Mrs. Haley’s sharply critical accusations about Mr. Putin and the Russians took many of the committee’s members by surprise for her honesty, frankness, and willingness to distance her views from those of the president-elect.
Mr. Trump’s views on these and other foreign policy issues are “the exact opposite of what you are articulating it to be,” said Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a Democratic member of the committee.
Well, she responded, “That’s how an administration works. You surround yourself with people who don’t just say ‘yes’ to what you think.”
It is difficult to offer a long-term forecast of how a Trump administration will eventually deal with Russia, a country that most U.S. foreign policy analysts believe is our chief adversary.
Whatever happens now in Syria, it is likely that at some point Bashar Assad will be charged with war crimes in the mass killing of his own people who were noncombatants.
But what about the role that his chief ally, Vladimir Putin, played in the massacres that took place in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria? Those were his war planes, under his command, that conducted relentless, saturation bombing raids on terrified, defenseless civilians.
What will Mr. Trump say if Mr. Putin, who has generously fed his ego by saying how brilliant he is, is also charged?
We know what Nikki Haley will say. But what would her boss Mr. Tillerson, who insisted he didn’t have any evidence of Mr. Putin’s war crimes, tell her to do if criminal charges against him are brought up for a vote in the U.N.?
As for Mr. Trump, his friendship and undying admiration for Mr. Putin remains stronger than ever.
• Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and contributor to The Washington Times.
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