President Trump has issued an edict about what his aides can and cannot say about Russia: report
US President Donald Trump (right) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin talk during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' summit in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 11, 2017 (AFP Photo/JORGE SILVA)

Discerning the true state of Russian-American relations is becoming increasingly complicated.

While President Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed his fondness for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his desire to improve relations with the country, the current administration's policy toward its foreign rival has become increasingly tough. Under Trump, the United States has agreed to provide weapons to Ukraine to fend off Russian forces, expelled Russian diplomats in response to an apparent chemical attack on British soil, and implemented significant sanctions on Russian entities in response to meddling in the 2016 election.

All the while, Trump has been quite obviously reluctant to criticize Russia in public, significantly diminishing the strength of the administration's otherwise considerable efforts to rein in Russian aggression.

A new report from NBC News finds that Trump has been privately urging his aides to likewise play down any actions against Russia.

Multiple senior administration officials told the outlet that Trump said they should not tout the decision to provide arms to Ukraine for fear of agitating Putin. When the administration announced the expulsion of diplomats, he insisted that the White House should send the message that he  "still wants to work with Russia."

The report also says that he has also directed some aides not to discuss the sanctions on Russia, though he has been inconsistent about this request.

There are two main ways to interpret Trump's behavior here. It's possible—as former CIA Director James Clapper has suggested—that Russia may have blackmail material on Trump, limiting his ability to publicly criticize Putin.

But it's also possible that Trump has just convinced himself that getting along with Russia is such an important goal that he's willing to personally look the other way, even when Putin's behavior is clearly unconscionable. He may have strategic reasons for wanting to cozy up with Russia, or he could just be committed to the idea because he so frequently praised Putin on the campaign trail.

Either way, it has created a bizarre tension between official American policy on Russia and Trump's own rhetoric—a tension that likely baffles U.S. allies and enemies alike.