The White House moved Friday to calm an exasperated world after a close adviser to President Donald Trump suggested the U.S. was considering easing sanctions on Russia.
The suggestion, made Thursday aboard Air Force One by Gary Cohn, the president’s top economic adviser, had roiled already tense conversations at the Group of Seven conference in Taormina, Italy, an ancient seaside village.
On Friday, Cohn made clear that no easing of sanctions is under consideration.
“We’re not lowering sanctions on Russia. If anything we’d probably look to get tougher on Russia,” Cohn told reporters. “The president wants to continue to keep the sanctions in place. The president has made clear how the Russians can have the sanctions lifted.”
Trump arrived in Sicily late Thursday for the final leg of a nine-day, five-country foreign visit that included stops the White House portrayed as a religious pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, Jerusalem and the Vatican.
Trump was joined by the leaders of Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan for a two-day G-7 summit to discuss a range of issues from global trade to climate change to security.
There is no doubt that this will be the most challenging G-7 summit in years.
Donald Tusk, president of the European Council
The talks opened uncomfortably after Trump’s visit to Brussels, where he lectured NATO leaders – some of whom also traveled to Sicily – for failing to live up to their financial obligations on defense spending.
The debate over Russian sanctions had the potential to upend talks already made tense by European concerns that Trump’s priorities may be more in line with Russia’s than with America’s traditional European allies.
Cohn had told reporters aboard Air Force One that there had been a lot of talk about sanctions in Brussels, leading to a question about whether the United States was considering lowering sanctions. Cohn’s response was ambiguous: “I did not say that. I said he’s looking.”
News reports based on that comment created a firestorm among European leaders. European Council President Donald Tusk, a former prime minister of Poland, declared publicly that the G-7 leaders should maintain sanctions on Russians.
“Since our last G-7 summit in Japan, we haven’t seen anything that would justify a change in our sanctions policy toward Russia,” Tusk told reporters in Sicily.
Tusk urged unity among the leaders, four of whom – Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni and British Premier Theresa May – are attending the summit for the first time.
“There is no doubt that this will be the most challenging G-7 summit in years,” Tusk said. “It is no secret that leaders who are meeting today sometimes have very different positions.”
Russia was once part of the group, having become an official member in 1988, when the summit changed its name to G-8. But Russia was kicked out in 2014 following its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.
When he ran for office, Trump spoke contemptuously of the trans-Atlantic establishment, voicing disdain for NATO and the European Union, and acceptance of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
As president, Trump has gotten tougher on Russia and softer on Europe, but some Europeans remain wary of a leader who still offered harsh assessments of NATO at the just-completed meeting.
“This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States,” Trump said. “And many of these nations owe massive amounts of money from past years and not paying in those past years.”
The White House described Friday’s discussion as positive, with a healthy exchange of ideas on terrorism, trade and climate change. Cohn compared the conversations about trade to a family dinner where everyone is pushing their ideas.
“It was an open discussion,” Cohn said. “The president was not in any way or shape in a position where people were disagreeing with him. There was a lot of mutual respect. And a lot of what I would call pushing and prodding at the edges.”
But Heather Conley, a former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau for European and Eurasian Affairs, said Trump’s public rebuke of NATO members’ defense spending – which no one had expected – could only have hurt discussions.
“The leaders don’t know. If you don’t know, you are very reluctant to get ahead,” said Conley, who’s now the director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research center. “You keep your cards close. You reinforce messages that are important for your constituents and your country’s interest. You’re not going to have as productive a meeting as you could.”