President Donald Trump had a chance this week to show he was tough on Russia — and he mostly blew it.
On Monday, he failed to meet a deadline to impose sanctions on individuals who do business with Russian military or intelligence entities.
But he did release a list — which is a report from the Treasury Department — of more than 200 influential, wealthy Russians and senior government officials as part of a naming-and-shaming exercise to put top Russians on notice. Congress mandated both actions — the sanctions and the list — to punish Russia for meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Here’s the backstory: 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 almost unanimously passed both chambers, 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 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 written signing statement, calling it “seriously flawed,” and said that he could “make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress.” Sean Kane, a former sanctions official at the Treasury Department, told me that most presidential administrations balk at Congress telling them whom and what to sanction — that’s power the White House likes to wield.
So Trump missed Monday’s deadline to impose the new sanctions. But the administration did do something else it was required to do: It released a list of 210 Russian leaders and billionaires with purported ties to Putin in order to indicate that the administration was watching them.
The list, which BuzzFeed reported was partially cribbed from an existing list in Forbes Magazine, included political figures with ties to Putin like his chief spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. It also included Russians worth $1 billion or more, like aluminum tycoon Oleg Deripaska and Roman Abramovich, owner of one of Britain’s best soccer teams, Chelsea.
Though none of the wealthy and influential Russians on the list are the targets of sanctions, experts say they will likely face some consequences. For example, foreign banks where Russian oligarchs keep a majority of their wealth may consider cutting ties with the individuals who were named.
Why? Because the naming-and-shaming list could very easily turn into an actual sanctions list in the future, said Richard Nephew, who oversaw sanctions policy at the State Department during the Obama administration, in a January interview.
“The idea [behind releasing the list] is to change Russian strategic thinking as Putin becomes concerned his best buds are about to get in trouble here,” Nephew said.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday that sanctions will come out of the list.
Putin thinks the sanctions are an effort to interfere in Russia’s elections
Hours before the US deadline to impose new sanctions on Russian entities, the Kremlin started complaining.
“We do think that this is a direct and obvious attempt to time some sort of action to coincide with our elections in order to influence them,” Peskov, a Kremlin spokesperson who was later named on the list, said on Monday. Russia’s elections are set to take place on March 18.
After the list’s release, Putin said the US took a “hostile step” toward Russia. “This is definitely an unfriendly act,” he added. “It is complicating Russian-American relations, where the situation is already hard, and is definitely harming international relations in general.”
The irony here, of course, is that in January 2017, the US intelligence community assessed that Russia deliberately interfered in America’s 2016 presidential election and tried to tip the vote in Trump’s favor. This is partially why Trump’s actions toward Russia are so closely scrutinized.
Democrats are among those carefully watching how tough Trump is on Russia. They made no secret that they wanted the president to punish Russians harshly for the Kremlin’s actions.
“Russia continues to threaten both its neighbors and democracies around the world, from Ukraine to the US,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), the top Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee, told me. “Understanding who is lining their pockets at the expense of the Russian people and how to combat their efforts is vital.”
Zeeshan Aleem contributed to this report.