Senator Claire McCaskill called it a “constitutional crisis.” Congressmen Raja Krishnamoorthi and Ted Lieu claimed that the president is bucking the will of Congress expressed in signed legislation. In a statement, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s top Democrat, Eliot Engel, said the Trump administration had the opportunity to “follow the law” but balked. “They chose instead,” he insisted, “to let Russia off the hook again.”
Those are strong words—reckless words if they are misapplied. Democrats deployed them amid reports that the Trump administration would not impose new sanctions on Russian entities in accordance with a bipartisan act of Congress. Donald Trump has not earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to Russia, and the administration’s justification for holding back on sanctions is derisory. The sanctions bill itself, the administration insisted, has already served as a “deterrent” for bad actors. Nevertheless, Moscow continues its destabilizing behavior abroad and anti-democratic agitation at home.
But has the president flagrantly ignored the law and inaugurated a crisis of constitutional legitimacy, and done so to curry favor with a hostile power, as Trump’s Democratic critics have alleged? The answer won’t surprise you.
The Trump administration was required by the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act to give Congress both a classified and unclassified list of Putin allies and oligarchs that could be targeted for potential sanctions, which they did. The law also required the administration to provide a report detailing the impact of sanctions on Russia’s sovereign debt, which they did. The law provides the administration a 120-day grace period for the imposition of new sanctions on unspecified targets if the president can claim that those targets have already substantially reduced their business activities in the Russian defense and intelligence sectors. In a statement, the State Department declared “that foreign governments have abandoned planned or announced purchases of several billion dollars in Russian defense acquisitions,” therefore satisfying that requirement. The statement left open the possibility for more sanctions on Russian and non-Russian entities, but added that the State Department would not “preview” them.
Lawmakers who allege that this amounts to a “constitutional crisis” should be ashamed of themselves. Their hyperbole is wildly irresponsible. And yet, given Trump’s bizarre efforts to seek Vladimir Putin’s approval, those who dismiss the State Department’s comments are not entirely unjustified in thinking this is all obfuscation. Trump has, after all, worn his admiration for Russia and its strongman president on his sleeve. The president’s rhetoric aside, however, this administration has also demonstrated that it is perfectly comfortable adopting an aggressive posture toward Russia.
In its earliest days, the new Trump administration did seek a grand rapprochement with Russia—the third such overture by as many administrations over the last 15 years. But this latest “reset” with Russia didn’t survive the administration’s first winter. The White House did not lift Obama-era sanctions on Russia, either those tied to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine or those linked to Russia’s intervention in the 2016 elections. A failed effort to engineer a split between Russia and its Iranian allies and the unsuccessful effort to persuade Moscow to pursue Western objectives in Syria sealed this new reset’s fate.
In the wake of this failed diplomatic offensive, the Trump administration began imposing new sanctions on Russian entities well before Congress took action. The Kremlin responded by expelling American diplomatic personnel from the Russian Federation. The Trump administration followed suit, expelling Russian diplomats and closing three U.S.-based Russian diplomatic facilities. In this period, the White House dragged its feet on implementing the new sanctions passed by Congress, but it also issued public guidance statements and listed potential targets including aviation, chemical and conventional arms manufacturers, and intelligence services even beyond what the last administration designated as targets of sanctions. These statements of purpose had the effect of curtailing commercial activity ahead of the imposition of new restrictions.
In November of last year, the Trump administration approved the sale of Patriot anti-missile systems and liquid natural gas to Poland, helping to liberate a target of Russian harassment from the threat both of kinetic force and of Moscow’s extortive energy policies. In December, the administration approved the sale of offensive arms to Ukraine, a nation that is at war with Russia and which has been asking for lethal aid since the invasions of the Donbas region and the Crimean Peninsula. That same week, the White House announced new financial and travel sanctions would be imposed on 52 government officials with Kremlin ties under the Magnitsky Act—the same anti-corruption law that the Russian-linked attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya lobbied the Trump campaign to ignore in an infamous Trump Tower meeting with campaign officials in the summer of 2016.
If the Trump administration is dedicated to selling out American sovereignty to Russia, they’re going about it in an extremely confused fashion.
And yet, you would only know any of this if you were paying close attention. The White House does not go around touting its laudably hawkish record on Russia. Perhaps administration members fear that, if they talk too loudly, the president might hear. Trump still clearly clings to his fantasy of a thaw with Russia. He continues to talk about that prospect as if it was realistic, and he rarely passes up an opportunity to praise the Russian strongman and his disgraceful record in office. If the president has engineered this stringent regime, he does not act like it.
The White House has allowed its opponents to shape public perceptions regarding its record on Russia. The Trump administration has a good case to make, but they’re not making it. They could list the ways in which they have boxed in Putin’s Russia and vastly improved on the last administration’s permissive record. The benchmark for appearing in thrall to despots in Moscow should be inking a “reset” with Russia months after Putin invaded and carved up Georgia. Similarly, outsourcing the enforcement of self-set red lines in Syria to Moscow, thus enabling an ongoing chemical genocide and setting the stage for a dangerous armed confrontation between Moscow and NATO forces in 2015, might be considered a form of naïve “collusion.” But the Trump administration isn’t making this argument.
Just as it would be blind to ignore the president’s hawkish record on Russia, it would be foolish to ignore the president’s history of obsequious toadying to Putin at the expense of American prestige. The administration has a short window to comply with the law, and the indications are that they eventually will. But this president has a narrative problem of its own making when it comes to Russia. Trump seems to think that if he admits what his administration freely concedes—that Russia interfered in the American political process, will do so again, and must be aggressively deterred from those destabilizing actions—it would sap his presidency of credibility. He has it precisely backward.