New U.S. Sanctions on Russia Challenge Trump Stance

New U.S. Sanctions on Russia Challenge Trump Stance
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President Obama on Thursday punished Russia for cyber activities tied to the U.S. elections, and in doing so challenged President-elect Donald Trump to choose between America’s national security and the Russians.

Russia’s cyber espionage is not likely to cease, administration officials told reporters.

“There's every reason to believe that Russia will interfere in future U.S. elections and future elections around the world,” a senior administration official said Thursday, speaking on background.

It was unclear how the new economic sanctions, which were applied to named intelligence officials in Russia and involve the expulsion of 35 Russian personnel from the United States, would thwart that nation’s cyber activities and harassment of U.S. diplomats, which officials described as “an attack on our democratic system” and “a threat to U.S. national security.”

An escalation of retaliatory measures, layered atop previous U.S. sanctions imposed in response to Russia’s aggression in Crimea and support for Syria, further strains relations with Moscow. The Kremlin immediately threatened tit-for-tat punishment following the White House announcement; Obama’s advisers from multiple federal departments did not immediately describe assessments of or new preparations for such risks.

“The principle of reciprocity applies here absolutely without alternative,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, according to the Interfax News Agency. Peskov said the Obama administration sought to undermine relations with the Kremlin and “strike a blow against the foreign-policy plans of the future administration and the new U.S. president.” (Early Friday, the Russian Foreign Ministry recommended expelling 35 American diplomats in Moscow and St. Petersburg, according to the state-run news agency TASS. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin later said he would not do so and instead would work to restore U.S. relations once Donald Trump takes offfice.)

The Russian government this year instigated the theft and leaks of emails from the Democratic National Committee and from the Gmail account of John Podesta, the campaign manager for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, administration officials repeated.

“We’ve established that clearly to our satisfaction,” the senior administration official added.

Trump, in a written statement, said he would meet with U.S. intelligence officials “next week.” He has been receiving the Presidential Daily Briefing about three times a week, and is briefed on a wide range of issues by his national security team on other days, his spokesmen have said.

But Trump fears that his acceptance of U.S. intelligence findings tied to Russia’s election interference could erode public confidence in his Electoral College victory. The president has said there is no evidence that ballots or ballot counts were tampered with.

During his campaign, Trump spoke warmly about Putin, and said he did not trust the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies. Since his election, he has touted a congratulatory letter he said he received from Putin, and he nominated Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, to be his secretary of state. Tillerson has close business ties with Moscow.

“I think we ought to get on with our lives,” Trump told reporters at his Florida estate Wednesday evening when asked about the pending sanctions. “I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly. The whole age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what is going on. We have speed, we have a lot of other things, but I’m not sure we have the kind, the security we need.”

By Thursday evening, Trump modified his reaction slightly in a one-paragraph written statement: “It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things. 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.”

The president-elect has said he will hold his first news conference since July next month, but a date has not been set.

Trump’s incoming White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, defended the incoming president’s skepticism Thursday morning, before details of Obama’s sanctions were announced. “If the United States has clear proof of anybody interfering with our election, we should make that known,” he told reporters.

Obama, in a written statement while vacationing in Hawaii, said the punishments he ordered were not the total retribution Russia should expect. “We will continue to take a variety of actions at a time and place of our choosing, some of which will not be publicized,” he said.

It was unclear whether the clandestine responses Obama envisioned would occur in the final three weeks of his presidency.

Trump has the power after Jan. 20 to erase Obama’s latest steps, but senior administration officials said the new president would have some explaining to do if he takes that path.

Ignoring evidence of Russian harassment of U.S. diplomats would not please Americans who identify with either major political party, they argued. And inviting Russian intelligence personnel back into the United States after being expelled, beginning on Sunday, “wouldn’t make a lot of sense,” the senior administration official added.

The Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation issued a joint technical report Thursday, and the president promised a more detailed public report to Congress before Jan. 20, all intended to make a case against Russia that will pressure lawmakers and the Trump administration, as well as U.S. allies, to adopt a firm stance against Putin and his extensive intelligence operations. The administration also wants U.S. cyber defenders to learn from the technical evidence behind the Russian breaches to prevent or mitigate future intrusions.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in a statement Thursday, said Russia is not America’s friend. “Sanctions against the Russian intelligence services are a good initial step, however late in coming,” he said. McConnell blamed Obama’s foreign policy for the attempts by Russia, Iran and China to expand their spheres of influence.

Officials, speaking on background, said Russia’s harassment of U.S. diplomats had increased in the last two years to a level not seen since the Cold War. And they said Russia’s cyber intrusions became evident months before the U.S. elections.

So why did Obama wait until December to retaliate?

“The president was very methodical,” the senior administration official explained while ducking a question about Obama’s evident caution, which was accompanied before the election by reported internal administration disagreements.

The president told reporters earlier this month that he had been averse to taking immediate action against Russia’s hack-and-leak project because he worried it might impact voters’ decisions to participate in the elections, in addition to his caution about voter perceptions of West Wing interference.

“My primary concern was making sure that the integrity of the election process was not in any way damaged, at a time when anything that was said by me or anybody in the White House would immediately be seen through a partisan lens,” Obama said at his end-of-year news conference. “I wanted to make sure that everybody understood we were playing this thing straight, that we weren't trying to advantage one side or another.”

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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