White House officials predicted Thursday that new sanctions being levied against Russia in retaliation for that country’s apparent hacking during the 2016 election would not be reversed by President-elect Donald Trump, despite Trump’s call for warmer relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
After he takes the oath of office in late January, Trump could unilaterally act to roll back the sanctions, which include expelling 35 Russian operatives and closing down two Russian facilities in the United States. But White House officials argued that if he did so, Trump would risk looking like he had caved to Russian interests.
“If a future president decided he wanted to allow in a large tranche of Russian intelligence agents, presumably a future president could do that,” a senior Obama administration official said on a Thursday press call. “We don’t think it would make much sense to reopen Russian intelligence compounds. ... We don’t think it makes much sense to invite back in Russian intelligence agents.”
Trump’s transition team did not immediately release a statement on the new sanctions issued by President Barack Obama. But the move likely didn’t catch them off guard. The White House had been warning for weeks that it intended to take retaliatory action against Russia, after senior officials said U.S. intelligence agencies had concluded that Russia’s hacking was designed to benefit Trump. On MSNBC Thursday afternoon, the president’s top counter-terrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco, said the administration had been in touch with the transition team on the matter.
In a statement released Thursday evening, Trump chose to skip over Russia’s involvement in hacking the emails of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
“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 said.
Trump’s predisposal toward warmer relations with Russia has led him in the past to utterly dismiss the possibility that Russia was involved in the hacks. He’s gone so far as to suggest that an unknown 400-pound man in a basement may have been the culprit. Speaking earlier on Thursday, before the sanctions were announced, incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer continued to try to shift the blame for hacking away from Russia.
“At some point, the question hasn’t even been asked of the [Democratic National Committee]: Did you take basic measures to protect the data that was on there?” Spicer said in an interview on CNN. “Where’s the responsibility of them to protect their systems?”
But questioning the culpability of the victim is different from scaling back punishment for the wrongdoer.
If Trump were to enter office and reverse Obama’s sanctions, he would not just be striking a diametrically different posture than his predecessor’s. He would also be going against many of the top officials of his own party.
Responding to the newly announced sanctions on Thursday, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) did not directly refer to Russian hacking in his statement. But he did say that retaliatory action was long overdue.
“Russia does not share America’s interests. In fact, it has consistently sought to undermine them, sowing dangerous instability around the world. While today’s action by the administration is overdue, it is an appropriate way to end eight years of failed policy with Russia,” Ryan said. “And it serves as a prime example of this administration’s ineffective foreign policy that has left America weaker in the eyes of the world.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) blamed Obama’s foreign policy for allowing Russia to expand its influence around the world, but said the sanctions imposed Thursday were a good first step.
“The Russians are not our friends. And clearly the Obama administration has not yet dissuaded them from attempting to breach our cybersecurity systems, or harass our diplomats in Moscow,” 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.”
Meanwhile, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who have been calling for congressional investigation into Russia’s involvement in the election, praised the sanctions and said that they would push for even stronger retaliatory measures in the next Congress.
“The retaliatory measures announced by the Obama Administration today are long overdue. But ultimately, they are a small price for Russia to pay for its brazen attack on American democracy. We intend to lead the effort in the new Congress to impose stronger sanctions on Russia,” the two senators said in a joint statement.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, also praised the sanctions.
“I am pleased to see the Obama Administration is finally responding to Russian meddling, including by sanctioning key operatives and expelling Russian spies from the United States. But these actions are long overdue. For many months I have urged the Administration to respond to the election-related hacks, and for years I have pressed them to stand up to Russia and other cyber intruders.,” McCaul said in a statement.
The story has been updated with President-elect Trump’s statement.
Akbar Shahid Ahmed contributed reporting.