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Trump may finally punish Russia for meddling in the election

Trump has been soft on Russia. That may be changing.

President Trump Hosts Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri At The White House
Trump with Mnuchin.
Zach Gibson/Pool/Getty Images

President Donald Trump may soon place sanctions on Russia for interfering in the 2016 presidential election, a surprising move given that Trump continues to deny that Russia actually meddled in the campaign.

That’s according to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who told lawmakers during a Tuesday hearing that the US would “be moving forward with sanctions on Russia” as a result of the Kremlin’s election interference.

“In my discussions with the president, he is fully supportive of the work we’re doing,” Mnuchin said. Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, also told the Senate on Tuesday that he expected Treasury to place sanctions on Russia soon because of the election.

It’s quite the turnaround for Trump, arguably the most pro-Russia president in recent memory. Two months ago, Trump infuriated lawmakers from both parties for failing to impose congressionally crafted sanctions on Russia for its election meddling. Mnuchin’s comments mean that Trump may finally implement the measures Congress had passed overwhelmingly last July.

The sanctions would come weeks after Trump released a list 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 that the US is watching them.

Experts say the new sanctions are expected to target some subset of people from that list, though it’s not yet clear who. And it’s also possible that the administration imposes sanctions on Russia for other reasons — namely its invasion of Ukraine — and doesn’t cite the election as the sole reason for the measures, Sean Kane, a former sanctions official at the Treasury Department, told me.

Still, it’s a major announcement made more major still because of who sits in the Oval Office.

Trump has been soft on Russia. That may be changing.

After Trump reluctantly signed the Russia sanctions bill passed by Congress last year, he slammed the bill in an August signing statement. He called it “seriously flawed,” and said that he could “make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress.”

And Trump declined to impose the legislation’s mandated sanctions, even though the Senate passed the bill 98-2 and the House approved it with a stunning 419-3 vote.

But Trump’s actions weren’t so surprising. Throughout his presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and talked about how much he wanted to improve Washington’s chilly relationship with Moscow ties.

But Trump minimizes 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 special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into, among other things, whether or not Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia a “WITCH HUNT!”

Make no mistake: The evidence that Russia meddled in the election is overwhelming. For example, the US intelligence community assessed in January 2017 that Russia did meddle in the election, and did so to help Trump win the White House.

And on February 16, 2018, special counsel Mueller filed charges against 13 Russian nationals and three Russian groups who allegedly interfered with the 2016 US elections.

Or just listen to the words of some of the nation’s top national security officials. On February 13, Dan Coats, America’s top spy, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Russia would continue to interfere in American elections: “Frankly, the United States is under attack.”

Two weeks later, Adm. Michael Rogers, who leads US Cyber Command, said during a February 27 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.”

But none of that appears to matter to Trump. “Trump is more concerned with deflecting the issue politically,” Matthew Waxman, a former senior official in the George W. Bush administration, told me on March 1.

Trump likes to boast over and over again that he’s much tougher on Russia than his predecessor, Barack Obama. But he’s also made it clear that he really doesn’t want to sanction Russia, and that he really doesn’t believe they tried to interfere with the 2016 election. Reluctantly or not, he’ll finally punish them all the same.