What to make of the sanctions announced yesterday by the U.S. Treasury Department against a passel of Russians, the St. Petersburg “troll farm” and several Russian intelligence officials? At first glance, the sanctions – the first real-world action against Russia taken by Donald Trump’s administration since it took office 14 months ago – might be taken as a sign that the White House has finally decided to get tough with Vladimir Putin. After all, as president, Trump has uttered barely a critical word about Putin, despite trash-talking and Twitter-assailing virtually every other world leader, including many American allies.
And could it be a sign that Trump – who last year ordered the firing of Robert Mueller, the Russiagate special counsel, only to be talked out of it by cooler heads, including the White House’s chief lawyer – has accepted the idea that Mueller is doing a good job? After all, the majority of the Russians sanctioned yesterday are those indicted by Mueller for using social media – including Facebook and Twitter – in a covert operation designed, well, to help elect Trump in 2016.
The answers to both questions – is Trump getting tough with Putin, and has Trump decided that Mueller is doing the Lord’s work? – is no. The sanctions themselves, very limited in scope, are not likely to have any real impact in Russia. And as far as Mueller’s work goes, Trump and his attorneys well know Mueller is slowly tightening the noose around Trump’s presidency. Yesterday, the same day that the sanctions were unveiled, The New York Times reported a blockbuster story that Mueller has subpoenaed the Trump Organization’s financial and business records related to Russia, a sign that the Office of Special Counsel is delving deep into Trump’s tangle of ties to Russian oligarchs. And there are new reports that Trump may oust Attorney General Jeff Sessions – who’s recused himself from overseeing Mueller – in order to replace Sessions with an attorney general who’d be more amenable to getting rid of Mueller or, at a minimum, clipping his wings.
Let’s unpack the sanctions story. On Thursday, the Treasury Department announced its package of sanctions. “These targeted sanctions are a part of a broader effort to address the ongoing nefarious attacks emanating from Russia,” said Secretary of the Treasury Steven T. Mnuchin. The majority of those sanctioned were drawn, name for name, from the indictment filed by Mueller last month citing three Russian companies, including the Internet Research Agency, and 13 individual Russians for the social-media part of Russia’s 2016 election meddling. (You can read Mueller’s indictment here, and read Rolling Stone’s account here. For detailed information about who was sanctioned yesterday and why, you can read the Treasury Department’s statement here and get more details from Treasury here.)
The Internet Research Agency (IRA), you’ll recall – often described in shorthand form as a “troll farm” – is a private firm based in St. Petersburg, Russia, and run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch close to Putin. In 2016, the IRA hired dozens of workers and spent millions of dollars to create fake Facebook and Twitter identities, who then issued a stream of social-media posts disparaging Hillary Clinton and inflaming some of the most divisive issues in America during the election season, including race, immigration and guns.
Most of those 13 IRA workers – including Prigozhin, the boss, the IRA itself and two related companies – were sanctioned on Thursday.
But the sanctions will have little or no deterrent effect on Russia – including on the growing likelihood that Russia will meddle in the 2018 elections, too. And that’s not surprising: Consider Trump’s track record in response to Russia’s 2016 actions. He’s called Mueller’s Russia investigation a “witch hunt” and a “hoax.” When President Obama imposed a set of sanctions on Russia in December 2016 – including the expulsion of three dozen Russian officials and the shutdown of two Russian facilities in the Washington, D.C., area – Trump and his aides reportedly held secret contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States suggesting that things would improve when Trump was sworn in. General Michael T. Flynn, who became Trump’s national security advisor, held some of those conversations, was fired for lying to the FBI about them, and has since been indicted. Flynn pled guilty, and he’s now cooperating with Mueller.
Soon after taking office, Trump reportedly began hinting that he planned to ease sanctions on Russia, reports that so alarmed Congress that it passed a bill, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, last summer. Though Trump signed it last August, the Trump administration ignored the bill, refused to impose the sanctions demanded by the act, and finally, in January, announced that it wouldn’t impose the sanctions at all.
Part of the bill required that the administration compile a list of Russian oligarchs and other prominent Russians who might be targeted for sanctions as a result of Russia’s 2016 meddling. But, in a farce, the administration released a nonsensical list of Russian billionaires that it simply copied from Forbes magazine’s list of wealthy Russians and a parallel list drawn from the Kremlin’s own list of top government personnel – and admitted that’s what it had done. Needless to say, none were actually sanctioned.
The response from Democrats to the weak-kneed list of sanctions announced yesterday has been withering. “These sanctions do not go far enough,” said Sen. John Warner, co-chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “Nearly all of the entities and individuals who were sanctioned today were either previously under sanction during the Obama administration, or had already been charged with federal crimes by the Special Counsel. With the midterm elections fast approaching, the administration needs to step it up, now, if we have any hope of deterring Russian meddling in 2018.”
And the leading Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence was equally unimpressed. “The sanctions today are a grievous disappointment and fall far short of what is needed to respond to [Russia’s] attack on our democracy let alone deter Russia’s escalating aggression, which now includes a chemical weapons attack on the soil of our closest ally,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, who complained that the Trump administration is doing no work of its own to identify Russians involved with the 2016 attack, instead merely piggybacking on Mueller’s indictment.
“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,” said Schiff.
Max Bergmann, a former State Department official who leads the Moscow Project at the Center for American Progress, told the Washington Post that the new sanctions were a “baby step,” and then added: “Actually, this is not even a baby step. This is a mirage to make it look like they have implemented sanctions.”