Trump Praises Putin Over US Sanctions From Election Interference
After the Obama administration’s tough new sanctions against Russia put the president-elect in a vulnerable political position at home, in his own party and abroad, Donald Trump chose to respond in familiar fashion – with praise for Vladimir Putin.
The president-elect has repeatedly spoken approvingly of Putin and called for closer relations with Russia. On Friday, he used Twitter to applaud Putin’s restrained response to the expulsion by the US of 35 diplomats and the closure of two Russian compounds.
Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 30, 2016
The tweet, like many from Trump that seem calculated to shock and offend, caused a predictable media furore. However, it probably will have done nothing to alleviate the difficult political position in which Trump now finds himself.
The president-elect has been consistently skeptical about the US intelligence consensus that Russia ordered cyber-attacks on Democratic party targets as a way to influence the 2016 election in his favor – the reason for Obama’s new sanctions. At one point, he suggested the culprit might have been China, another state or even a 400lb man in his bedroom.
On taking office in January, Trump might therefore be expected to simply end the Obama sanctions. And as president, he could do so; presidential orders can simply be repealed by the executive branch.
But the situation is not that simple. If Trump did choose to remove the sanctions, he would find himself at odds with his own party. Senior Republicans in Congress responded to the Obama sanctions by identifying Russia as a major geopolitical foe and criticizing the new measures only as a case of too little too late. Some promised a push for further measures in Congress.
Trump may therefore choose not to reverse the new sanctions. If so, he will find himself at odds with the man he so constantly praises.
On Friday, the Kremlin responded to the moves, including the expulsion of 35 suspected intelligence operatives and the closing of two Russian facilities in the US, with a shrug. Putin, it seems, is willing simply to wait until Trump moves into the Oval Office. Trump’s tweet suggested he is too.
But such provocative words could not distract the media and public from another domestic concern for Trump – the growing perception that his predecessor has acted to his disadvantage.
“The sanctions were clearly an attempt by the Obama administration to throw a wrench into – or [to] box in – the next administration’s relationship with Russia,” said Boris Zilberman, a Russia expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“Putin, in part, saw through that and sidestepped it by playing good cop to [Russian foreign minister Sergey] Lavrov and the [state] Duma, who were calling for a reciprocal response.”
Trump will also face pressure from intelligence agencies, which have concluded that Moscow ordered the election cyber-attacks.
“There is now a public record of what Russia did and why they did it,” said Zachary Goldman, executive director of New York University Law School’s Center on Law and Security, referring to a joint Department of Homeland Security and FBI report issued on Thursday.
“Even if the sanctions can be unwound, you can’t make that public statement go away.”
Goldman also noted an international element to the situation facing Trump. It is important to note, he said, that the new executive order enables Obama and his successors to take retaliatory action against efforts to influence elections held by “allies and partners”. Germany and France will hold elections in 2017.
On a call with reporters on Thursday, a senior White House official said the US had “every indication” that Russia would continue to pursue such cyber-attacks.
‘All Americans should be alarmed by Russia’s actions’
On the same call, officials expressed confidence that the political risk of appearing to cave in to Moscow would prevent any future administration from unwinding the sanctions.
“If a future president decided that he wanted to allow in a large tranche of Russian intelligence agents, presumably a future president could invite that action,” a senior official said.
“We think it would be inadvisable. As my colleague just said, these diplomatic compounds were being used for intelligence purposes. That is a direct challenge to US national security, and I don’t think it would make much sense to reopen Russian intelligence compounds.”