President Barack Obama is forcing his successor, Donald Trump, into a difficult choice: reverse the sanctions the departing president just imposed on Russia for hacking e-mails in the U.S. election or put at risk his campaign vow to improve relations with Vladimir Putin.
Hours after Obama imposed penalties on Russian agencies, individuals and companies and ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian operatives Thursday, Trump issued a terse statement far milder than his previous assertions that Democratic e-mails may well have been stolen and leaked by “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”
“It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things,” the president-elect said. “Nevertheless, in the interest of our country and its great people, I will meet with leaders of the intelligence community next week in order to be updated on the facts of this situation.”
While the sanctions and expulsions, imposed by executive order, can be undone with the stroke of a pen, Trump may find it politically difficult to do so as key Republicans in Congress expressed support for Obama’s move. U.S. intelligence agencies also issued a report Thursday on their evidence that Russia was behind the hacking that produced a stream of leaks damaging his campaign opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Russia reaffirmed its denial of any role in the cyberattacks, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proposed
expelling 35 U.S. diplomats in Moscow and St. Petersburg in retaliation for the American decision.
“This likely will box in the Trump administration, if not legally then certainly politically, because it’s going to be hard for the administration to come in and say on day one all the reports were untrue, the FBI was wrong, the CIA was wrong,” said Eric Lorber, a senior adviser at the Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It will be difficult for the incoming administration to make that argument to the American people and say the sanctions should be completely done away with.”
Obama aides were quick to point out how awkward such a reversal would be.
“If a future president wants to welcome a large tranche of Russian intelligence officials into the United States, he could do so, but we don’t think that makes much sense,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in a statement. “If a future administration wants to lift sanctions against senior Russian intelligence units to make it easier for them to engage in malicious cyberactivity, they could do so, but we don’t think that would make much sense.”
Equally significant, top Republican lawmakers expressed as much determination as Democrats to investigate Russia’s role in the hacking, and some called for even tougher sanctions against President Putin’s government.
“The Russians are not our friends,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement. “Sanctions against the Russian intelligence services are a good initial step, however late in coming. As the next Congress reviews Russian actions against networks associated with the U.S. election, we must also work to ensure that any attack against the United States is met with an overwhelming response.”
Obama’s action was the second time in a week that his administration moved forcefully in its final weeks on an issue where Trump has signaled he intends a drastic change in course. The U.S. abstained in the United Nations Security Council, allowing passage of a resolution condemning Israeli settlements. Signaling he’ll make a quick about-face on criticism of Israel, Trump tweeted on Wednesday, “Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!”
The 13-page report on the Russian cyberattacks issued Thursday by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security details the tactics and malware used by the hackers. The analysis includes newly declassified information exposing part of the secret infrastructure that the agencies said the Russian government has used for years to attack the U.S.
That’s important because Trump’s team has said repeatedly that the president-elect wasn’t willing to condemn Russia because the evidence hadn’t been presented, even as published reports indicated the FBI wasn’t willing to go as far as other intelligence agencies in its findings.
“We agree that foreign governments shouldn’t be hacking American institutions, period. It’s not like we condone the hacking of institutions and entities and businesses in America. Of Course not. It’s wrong and it’s something we don’t agree with,” Reince Priebus, Trump’s appointee as chief of staff, said on Fox News Thursday night. “However, it would be nice if we could get to a place where the intelligence community, in unison, can tell us what it is that has been going on.”
When asked if Trump would reverse the actions against Russia, Priebus demurred, saying the president-elect needed to consult with military and intelligence advisers.
“It’s going to be up to him,” Priebus said.
Russian officials made clear that they saw the intelligence report and Obama’s actions as purely political acts. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on a conference call that Obama was trying to “completely ruin Russian-American relations” and undermine Trump’s foreign policy plans.
Analysts who studied the sanctions said the degree to which the administration had laid out the evidence against Russia was unprecedented.
“The goal here was to make it abundantly clear that Russia was behind the hacking attempts,” said John Hughes, a vice president at Albright Stonebridge Group and a former sanctions expert at both the Treasury and State departments. “I can’t remember a time that they’ve done so much to declassify certain information and make it clear how Russia is doing this and pointing a smoking gun at the Russian intelligence services. That is pretty significant.”