Donald Trump is one of the most Russia-friendly presidents in modern history. But in less than an hour on Thursday, he rebuked Russia harder than he has throughout his entire time in the White House.
Around 9:40 am, the White House released a joint statement in which the US, UK, France, and Germany blamed Moscow for a nerve agent attack against a Russian ex-spy on British soil. It was the first time since the March 4 attack that the Trump administration said the Kremlin was likely the culprit.
And at 10:30 am, the US Treasury Department announced long-awaited sanctions to punish Russia for its meddling in the 2016 presidential election and a worldwide cyberattack last year. The measures targeted nearly 25 Russian individuals and organizations, including members of Internet Research Agency (IRA) — the troll farm that used social media to sow divisions before the November 2016 vote.
Treasury also sanctioned Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s chef,” for his role in bankrolling Russian hackers. Special counsel Robert Mueller had indicted IRA members and Prigozhin last month, as part of his ongoing investigation into possible Trump-Russia collusion during the 2016 presidential election.
Put together, a president marred by Russia-related scandals and his affinity for Vladimir Putin has finally pushed back on Moscow. “These targeted sanctions are a part of a broader effort to address the ongoing nefarious attacks emanating from Russia,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement after the sanctions announcement.
But even so, experts say, this response could be too weak to have much of an effect. “It’s a good move by the administration to impose sanctions” and show solidarity after the Kremlin’s attack in the UK, Alina Polyakova, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution think tank, told me, “but it’s still not enough to respond to growing Russian aggression.”
The joint statement and the sanctions, explained
On March 4, Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found on an outside bench in Salisbury, England. It turned out they had been poisoned with a highly toxic nerve agent.
Eight days later, UK Prime Minister Theresa May said it was “highly likely” that Russia was behind the attack on the Skripals. When asked about the event later that day, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to directly blame Russia but said that “we offer the fullest condemnation” of the attack.
But on Thursday, the White House issued a joint statement with allies to support Britain’s claim, which said: “The United Kingdom thoroughly briefed its allies that it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for the attack. We share the United Kingdom’s assessment that there is no plausible alternative explanation.”
Moscow, however, denies it had any hand in the attack.
The sanctions that the US Treasury Department issued on Thursday have a bit more of a backstory. It all goes back to the January 2017 US intelligence community assessment that Russia did meddle in the election, and did so to help Trump win the White House.
But then last August, Trump reluctantly signed into law the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. Republican and Democratic lawmakers crafted the bill in response to Trump’s unusual warmth toward Russian President Vladimir Putin and his refusal to blame Russia for interfering in the election.
The legislation passed both chambers almost unanimously — 98-2 in the Senate and 419-3 in the House — and it was clear that Congress would override a presidential veto. It was explicitly designed to make old sanctions against Russia permanent and pressure Trump to impose new ones. The bill forced Trump to impose costs on Putin for interfering in America’s democratic process and for his interventions in Ukraine and Syria.
But Trump resented Congress’s move to box him in on Russia policy. The president slammed the legislation in a signing statement, calling it “seriously flawed,” and said that he could “make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress.”
Still, the law forced Trump to impose sanctions in late January — but he missed the deadline. Instead, the administration released a list of 210 Russian leaders and billionaires with purported ties to Putin in order to indicate that the administration was watching them.
Then on March 6, Mnuchin and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats announced that new sanctions on Russia were imminent, with Mnuchin adding that Trump was “fully supportive of the work we’re doing.” And on Thursday, the sanctions were finally announced.
Senior administration officials told reporters that the sanctions were meant to punish Russia for interfering in the 2016 election and for masterminding a global cyberattack, known as NotPetya, that hit large corporations and hospitals in the US and Europe last summer.
“The administration is, arguably for the first time, directly acknowledging and responding to Russia’s intervention in the 2016 campaign,” Sean Kane, a former sanctions official at the Treasury Department, told me.
The new measures target five Russian organizations and 19 Russian individuals. The big organizational targets include two Russian intelligence agencies, known by their acronyms FSB and GRU, and prominent Russians like Prigozhin. That means people connected to the intelligence agencies, and Prigozhin himself, cannot travel to America or do business with American companies, and will soon see their US assets frozen.
Experts tell me the timing of the sanctions was surely meant to show support for London and condemn Moscow after the nerve agent attack.
Now the question is: Does this signal a change in Trump’s attitude toward Russia? Well, it’s complicated.
Is Trump tough on Russia now?
Despite the sanctions, Trump continues to minimize Russia’s involvement in the election. He thinks Russia didn’t interfere — and that Democrats use the Trump-Russia narrative as an excuse for losing the election. He’s famously called the investigation into whether his campaign colluded with Russia a “WITCH HUNT!”
Even Trump’s own national security team said he could be tougher on Russia. On February 13, Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Russia would continue to interfere in American elections: “Frankly, the United States is under attack.”
Two weeks later, on February 27, Adm. Michael Rogers, who leads US Cyber Command, said during a congressional hearing that Trump had yet to ask him to take measures against Russia’s hackers. “If we don’t change the dynamic here, this is going to continue, and 2016 won’t be viewed as something isolated,” Rogers told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “This is something that will be sustained over time.”
Other military leaders echoed the admiral’s sentiment, including Army Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone, Trump’s nominee to replace Rogers. “I would say right now they do not think much will happen to them,” he said of Russia during his confirmation hearing last week. “They don’t fear us.”
That, in part, is why experts seem skeptical that Trump will all of a sudden become a Russia hawk. Trump “has a reluctance divorced from what is best for America to speak clearly about the threat Russia poses to the United States and our allies,” Evelyn Farkas, formerly the Pentagon’s top Russia official, told me.
And lawmakers, many of whom are usually critical of the president, feel he could do more to punish Russia. “If President Trump believes that today’s action sufficiently addresses the sanctions package Congress sent to respond forcefully to Moscow’s election interference, then he is sorely mistaken,” California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.
Trump likes to boast over and over again that he’s much tougher on Russia than his predecessor Barack Obama. Today is the first time he really did anything to back up that claim — and he may have more chances.
“By no means will this constitute the end to our ongoing campaign to instruct Mr. Putin to change his behavior,” a senior administration official told reporters on Thursday morning.