Trump blames media 'narrative' for the belief that he's soft on Russia

President Trump just came out and said it.

At a presser with Japan's prime minister, he proclaimed that he takes a very aggressive posture toward Russia--and took a shot at the press.

"There has been nobody tougher than me," Trump said. "With the media, no matter what I did, it's never tough enough because that's their narrative."

Well, he may be right about the second part.

The toughest-president-ever boast is a stretch: tougher than Ronald Reagan taking on the Soviets' Evil Empire? But it's true that when it comes to Russia, the media portray the 45th president as being rather soft. And that reflects the consensus of the Beltway foreign policy community, which tends to be hawkish.

The reason, in my view, is Trump's rhetoric. He almost always speaks positively about Vladimir Putin and constantly talks about how it would be better to get along with Russia.

But Trump's actions tell a different story. The administration has imposed sanctions on Moscow. And the president did expel a record 60 Russian diplomats after the murder of that spy in Britain.

Those stories were covered, to be sure. But they vanished fairly quickly from the radar.

It's hardly unprecedented for an administration to take aggressive action while a president uses conciliatory language to maintain good relations with a foreign leader. Trump does the same thing with Xi Jinping, despite having recently proposed huge tariffs on Chinese goods.

But the press is so accustomed to focusing on Trump's river of words and tweets that the growing tensions with Moscow almost become a back story.

There is another reason why the media are so fixated on the narrative that Trump doesn't want to cross Putin. And that, of course, is the Russia investigation. There is an underlying belief that Trump may be indebted to Russia for its campaign hacking and propaganda, and that his foreign policy is some sort of payback. And this persists despite the lack of hard evidence of collusion.

The issue is very much in the news because of the Nikki Haley flap. The U.N. ambassador said on "Face the Nation" that new Russian sanctions were coming the next day, creating an expectation that was dashed when the world learned that Trump had approved no such sanctions.

This was a White House screwup, which spawned lots of coverage about Haley refusing to take the blame for "confusion." But if she hadn't made the premature announcement, no one would have thought that Trump was going to impose more sanctions related to Assad’s alleged chemical attack.

Few people agree with Trump's toughest-ever assessment of his record. But that doesn't mean the president is entirely wrong when he pushes back against the media narrative on Russia.