Lost in memo frenzy, White House passed on punishing Russia for 2016 meddling

Getty Images

Lost in the shuffle of the Washington shouting matches over the Russia investigations last week was the fact that the Trump administration missed a great opportunity to impose further sanctions on Moscow.

In 2017, Congress passed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act by an overwhelming majority and President Trump signed the bill into law. It mandated the administration to provide a list by Jan. 31 of Russian persons and/or entities to be sanctioned for their closeness to the Russian regime as punishment for the aggression in Ukraine and Russia’s incontrovertible intervention in our 2016 elections.

The Treasury Department did not actually draft a list of persons and entities close to President Putin whose sanctioning would present to Russia an unmistakable sign of our serious intent. Instead the Treasury Department, possibly at the last moment, merely repeated a list of Russian oligarchs taken from Forbes.ru and thus displayed its “compliance” with the legislation.

{mosads}The result was congressional anger, allied dismay, and Russian scorn. Moscow’s stock exchange actually went up after this news showing its derision at the lazy and confused U.S. effort. This action also clearly raised questions in allied capitals as to the seriousness of our anti-Russian position while we are admonishing them to do more against Moscow. This episode — especially in the context of the other news concerning the Nunes memo and Mueller investigations — embodied many of what have long since become negative hallmarks of this administration.


First, the slipshod way in which the Treasury Department released this information (12 minutes before the deadline) clearly betokened the administration’s ongoing contempt for the idea that it’s bound by law and must obey congressional legislation. Remember this legislation passed 417-5 in the House.

President Trump’s long-standing refusal to accept that he is bound by the law has already brought the country to the brink of a constitutional crisis and this case epitomized that refusal. So it can only augur further negative developments in the relationship between Congress and the executive branch.

Second, the Treasury Department lazy and unprofessional manner of responding to the law shows this administration, and in many cases the Republican Party, have proclaimed themselves the enemy of the civil service — and a disregard for professional expertise regardless of what area of government we are discussing. There are plenty of civil servants in the Treasury Department and elsewhere who could have helped draft a document and list that would have placed maximum pressure upon Russia. Although Secretary Steven Mnuchin now claims that future sanctions are a real possibility and are being prepared, it is clear that this was not believed either in Moscow or in Washington.

Moreover, this disdain for expertise colors policies across the board along with fantasies that experts must be part of the “deep state.” That is a concept with no basis in American reality but does serves to incite mutual distrust and suspicion and rampant but no less incredible conspiracy theories that also have no basis in fact.

It is an insult to civil servants who serve their government out of patriotism and can make much more elsewhere, that in many cases they are the first ones belittled by politicians looking to save money, face, or otherwise benefit. Such postures hardly make for better government whether in Treasury or the Interior Department or the FDA, quite the opposite.

Third, the administration’s behavior merely adds fuel to the investigations probing Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election. That intervention was incontrovertible and its scope grows seemingly every week. We have long known that Moscow not only wanted an entrée to the Trump campaign and administration but also to end sanctions and the Magnitsky laws. After all. Trump has talked not only about improving ties with Russia but also about eliminating the sanctions.

Whether or not the president and members of his team are guilty of any impeachable or criminal offenses, the Treasury Department’s behavior here lends credence to the idea that they are hiding something and trying to offer Moscow a quid pro quo. President Trump and his officials owe it to themselves, the government as a whole, and to us to show that they are not in any way tainted by these allegations and that they are untrue. Declaring them fake news and upending the FISA process clearly has failed and this episode represents another missed opportunity.

Finally, having read the Nunes memo and as a former professor at the Air War and Army War Colleges, I can say that not only is there no substance there, but that also there is nothing there that exonerates the White House or anyone else from charges that they were too involved with Moscow. Nor does it prove that the FBI was prejudiced against Trump, another groundless charge.

Had I ever released such a document while employed by the military I would now be sitting in one of the many Club Feds that dot our country’s landscape. When congressional representatives emulate the White house belief that they can flout the law with impunity for partisan advantage then more than investigations may be necessary to see to it that the laws be faithfully executed.

Stephen Blank is a former professor of Russian National Security Studies and National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. He is also a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College.

Tags Donald Trump Donald Trump Kremlin; Moscow; Vladimir Putin Russia sanctions Stephen Blank Steven Mnuchin Treasury Department

More International News

See All

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video