As America takes a tougher stance toward Russia, Trump is telling aides not to talk about it publicly, for fear of upsetting Putin.
After months of refusing, Trump finally signed off on a deal to supply new U.S. weapons to Ukraine — a major policy shift aimed at helping Ukraine in its fight against Russia-backed separatists.
But after authorizing the deal, Trump told his aides to keep it on the down low. Talking about it publicly, Trump fretted, could make Putin angry.
"He doesn't want us to bring it up," a White House official told NBC News. "It is not something he wants to talk about."
Apparently, this isn't an anomaly.
As Trump signs off on policies taking a tougher stance toward Russia, he has told his aides not to talk about the moves in public because he doesn't want to upset Putin or harm their relationship.
White House officials told NBC News that the perplexing divide between Trump's policy decisions and public position on Russia "stems from his continued hope for warmer relations with Putin."
When the White House announced this week that the U.S. was expelling 60 Russian diplomats in response to the Kremlin's involvement in a nerve agent attack on a former spy living in the U.K., Trump — keeping with his practice of never personally calling out or condemning Putin — was nowhere to be seen, and still has not issued a public statement about it.
Apparently worried that Putin might be upset by the move, Trump also reportedly insisted that the White House's announcement include the message that he "still wants to work with Russia." Then, during a private phone call with the Russian president, Trump ignored his national security advisers and their all-caps message to him "DO NOT CONGRATULATE," and refused to condemn the poisoning.
Earlier this year, Trump signed a bill imposing sanctions on Russia for its interference in the U.S. election and its aggression in Ukraine — but promptly followed up by complaining that it would harm relations with Russia.
Trump's refusal to take a tough public posture toward Putin is only fueling further speculation that the Russian president may know something about Trump's past that could hurt him if it got it.
Former CIA Director John Brennan made that exact point last week, suggesting that Trump is withholding criticism of Putin because Russia may have compromising information on Trump.
"The fact that he has had this fawning attitude toward Mr. Putin, has not said anything negative about him, I think continues to say to me that he does have something to fear and something very serious to fear," Brennan said on MSNBC's Morning Joe.
"The Russians could have something on him," he added.
And now, even as Trump shows signs of toughening his stance toward Russia, he still can't bring himself to do the same towards Putin.