President Barack Obama said Thursday that the sanctions announced against Russia were a response to the Kremlin’s “aggressive harassment of U.S. officials and cyber operations aimed at the U.S. election.” But Republican allies of the incoming administration say those sanctions have another target: Donald Trump.
“I will tell you that even those who are sympathetic to President Obama on most issues are saying that part of the reason he did this today was to quote ‘box in’ President-elect Trump,” incoming counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway said Thursday night on CNN. “That would be very unfortunate if politics were the motivating factor here. We can’t help but think that’s often true.”
Conway was just one of multiple Trump allies to attack the president’s package of sanctions, announced Thursday afternoon. The president-elect and his team have thus far been unwilling to concede what all 17 U.S. federal intelligence agencies announced last fall, that Russia was behind the wave of cyberattacks that shook up the presidential election by releasing hacked email messages from the Democratic National Committee and other prominent Democratic figures. Instead, Trump has said the attacks could have been performed by Russia or China or “somebody sitting in a bed someplace.”
And the president-elect has taken particular objection to the assessment of the FBI and CIA, which were reported in the media but not released publicly, that the Russian government’s cyber efforts were intended not just to undermine the U.S. electoral process but specifically to help install Trump as the next president.
Instead, Trump’s team has said regularly that discussion of Russian cyberattacks by Democrats and the mainstream media are little more than efforts to delegitimize the incoming administration before it even arrives. Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and prominent Trump supporter, said Friday that Obama’s decision to impose sanctions late in his second term was “extraordinary” and added that he has “never seen a president try to create more problems for a future president.”
Asked if Obama was attempting to “box in” Trump with the package of sanctions, Giuliani said “of course he is.”
“There’s a certain pettiness that I hadn’t seen before. I mean, to do this after 18 months, when you could have prevented it 10 months ago,” Giuliani said Friday on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends.” “Petty little actions like this don’t mean very much. It’s almost a mockery to say this is too little too late. It should have been done 10 months ago, 11 months ago, 12 months ago. If it is really true, the response should be much stronger.”
Giuliani, who works as a security consultant for foreign governments, said it would be a mistake for Trump to implicitly trust any intelligence information produced under the current administration. Intelligence gathered under Obama should be given extra scrutiny, Giuliani said, given the president’s past missteps, including labeling the Islamic State militant group the “JV team” and scoffing when 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney labeled Russia as America’s top “geopolitical foe.”
“Here’s what you do: You get your own people to review it,” Giuliani said. “There’s no question that the intelligence that President Obama has been getting has either been incompetent or politicized. I do cybersecurity for a living, and this is prolific, and there should be very strong reactions against anyone who did it. But I would urge President Trump, when he becomes President Trump, to have his own intelligence people do their own report, let’s find out who did it, and let’s bang them back really hard.”
The sanctions announced Thursday by the White House target Russian intelligence services as well as businesses and individuals involved in cyberattacks launched by Russia targeting the U.S. electoral system. The package also expels 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S. and closes two Russian compounds, one in Maryland and another in New York, that Obama said are used for “intelligence-related purposes.”
The president’s statement said the announced package of sanctions is “not the sum total of our response to Russia’s aggressive activities,” leaving open the possibility of covert retaliatory operations.
Russia, for its part, announced Friday that it will not expel any U.S. diplomats in response. Rumors that the Kremlin planned to shut down the Anglo-American School of Moscow also swirled but were shot down by Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who wrote on Facebook that “the White House has totally lost it and is starting to invent sanctions against their own children.”
Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, said Friday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that President Vladimir Putin’s decision not to retaliate in kind showed that he is essentially running out the clock on the Obama administration. Trump lauded the decision on social media Friday afternoon, tweeting: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!”
The package of sanctions will not amount to much, former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton said Friday morning in his own “Fox & Friends” interview. Sanctions that would truly deter future attacks must “make the Russians feel pain,” Bolton said. Like Giuliani, Bolton said intelligence gathering under the Obama administration had become “politicized” to the point where Trump and any congressional investigations should take care to reexamine the facts.
“I don’t think they will have much impact at all,” Bolton said of the sanctions. “The Russians have walked all over the Obama administration for eight years. It’s really been a pathetic performance. So what this last burst of activity has to do is hard to say. I do think it’s intended to try and box the Trump administration in. I think it will fail. This is simply an executive order. If President Trump decides to reverse it, it’s easy enough to do.”
McFaul, who was himself placed on a sanctions list by Russia, took a more optimistic view of the sanctions, although he admitted that the late stage of Obama’s presidency makes the moves announced Thursday unlikely to change the Kremlin’s behavior. Still, he said, there is value in further attribution and removing any doubt that it was indeed Russia that carried out the cyberattacks.
The expelled diplomats, McFaul said, are likely intelligence officers and their removal from the country will certainly impede Russian efforts to carry out further attacks.
“They’re annoyed by it, don’t be mistaken,” McFaul said on MSNBC Friday morning. “But it’s not the kind of level of sanctions that would somehow change Mr. Putin’s behavior, especially [with] just weeks left in the Obama administration.”
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