Imagine if the Kremlin had authorized a murder of a prominent Russian exile in Boston — using a rare nerve gas manufactured by its military to attack NATO troops.
Presumably, our country would be in an uproar. Yet President Trump’s response to such a murder in Britain last week – for which our NATO ally blames Russia – has been woefully wimpy.
While the U.S. joined Britain, France, and Germany in a statement denouncing Russia, nothing was said about collective action. And while the administration announced new Russia sanctions this week – the first under this president – they were more symbolic than strong.
Even when Trump finally commented on the attack, his critique of Russia was limp and halfhearted. “A very sad situation,” the president said. “It certainly looks like the Russians were behind it.”
Hardly a ringing call to action.
Trump never mentioned the words Putin, or sanctions, or election interference. Never mind that British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said on Friday that it’s “overwhelmingly likely” that Putin himself ordered the attack.
Trump’s refusal to criticize Putin – or to respond to malevolent Kremlin actions – has moved from the bizarre to the dangerous. Perhaps Robert Mueller will discover Trump’s reasons – the special prosecutor subpoenaed files from the Trump Organization this week including some relating to Russia.
But unless Trump pushes back against Putin, the Russian leader will continue to smell weakness. U.S. intelligence chiefs have warned that Russian hackers will meddle in 2018 elections. More serious is the news, released Thursday, that Russian cyberattacks have targeted U.S. and European nuclear power plants and water and electric systems and have the power to sabotage or shut them.
U.S. intelligence agencies have known about these hacking of utilities for months.
So what is Trump’s problem? Does he still nurture dreams of building a Trump Tower in Moscow? Is he beholden to Russian financiers?
Or is Trump smitten with a case of autocrat envy – wishing he could operate like Putin, who will win reelection Sunday in a vote where real opponents were banned from running?
Whatever the reason, this country cannot afford to wait for the end of Mueller’s investigation to learn why the president refuses to stand up to a Russian leader who only recognizes strength.
The newly announced sanctions were against Russia’s two main intelligence agencies and a group of individuals who worked for the Russian “troll farm” that hacked the election. But they will have no impact on Putin. Most of the targets have already been sanctioned, and/or indicted by Mueller. Those indicted from the troll farm were mainly salaried employees.
“Nobody [in the Kremlin] takes [these sanctions] seriously,” I was told by Yevgenia Albats, editor of the independent New Times magazine in Moscow. “Nobody cares. Why should they?” Albats says that, except for Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Putin confidant who ran the troll factory, every individual on the new sanctions list “is a nobody.”
Last summer, a massive bipartisan vote in Congress passed harsher sanctions on Russia that were supposed to target a group of oligarchs close to Putin, affecting their overseas assets. But Trump has refused to implement those sanctions; the list has been kept secret.
If the administration had gone after those oligarchs close to Putin, “the Kremlin would have taken it seriously,” says Albats. Didn’t happen. Question is, why?
An even bigger question is why Trump hasn’t called for a broad, governmentwide strategy to counter Russian cyber malfeasance.
When Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone, the nominee to run the National Security Agency and the U.S. Cyber Command, was asked at Senate confirmation hearings last month about U.S. strategy to counter Russian hacking, his answer was shocking. “I would say right now they do not think much will happen to them,” he responded. “They don’t fear us.”
The departing chief of U.S. Cyber command, Adm. Michael S. Rogers, was equally blunt in Senate testimony in February. He said U.S. efforts to counter Russian cyber attacks were insufficient. Putin “has clearly come to the conclusion that ‘there’s little price to pay here and therefore I can continue this activity,’ ” Rogers stated.
When frustrated Democratic senators pressed Rogers about whether he had been authorized by Trump to do more to thwart Russian cyber operations where they originate, he responded: “No, I have not.
“I haven’t been granted any additional authorities, capacity and capability.”
Of course, Rogers, and now Nakasone, can work within the limited authority they are granted. But that authority is inadequate, as even some GOP senators admit.
At the Nakasone hearing, Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse said bluntly, “We are not responding in any way that’s adequate to the challenges we face.”
In other words, the president is not responding.
At a time when Putin is bragging about new “invincible” missiles aimed at America (and Trump is rushing to increase America’s nuclear arsenal), the president could take steps to show Putin that he isn’t a patsy. Like sanctioning oligarchs. Like authorizing a new cyber-strategy.
But Trump (so far) refuses to take them. And we are left asking: Why?