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Trump’s big, new sanctions threat is more about deterring Congress than scaring Russia

“I doubt anyone on Capitol Hill is going to see this and say, ‘OK, we can take a step back. The president’s got this.’”

by Greg Walters
Sep 13 2018, 10:19am

The Trump administration rolled out a formal plan to slap sanctions on any foreign power that dares to mess with an American election.

“The president has taken command of this issue,” National Security Adviser John Bolton declared Wednesday.

But the White House’s intended audience isn’t Russian President Vladimir Putin or his shadowy army of spies, sanctions experts and former officials told VICE News.

It’s Congress.

The new executive order is a bid to preempt the no-fewer-than-five serious congressional proposals now under consideration on Capitol Hill, which, if passed, could reduce Trump’s decision-making authority on how to respond to a future attempt to swing an American election.

Rather than a stern warning directed at Putin and like-minded leaders, the executive order appears focused on torpedoing congressional action, experts said.

“The strategic issue here seems to be an attempt to reclaim the narrative on Russia sanctions from Congress, rather than a real attempt to ratchet up the pressure on Russia,” said Adam Smith, former senior adviser to the director of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

“The president already had the authority to do all this,” Smith added.

“They want this in their pocket to show that, ‘Hey, we’re doing something about this.’”

The executive order begins with a bizarre, Trumpian preamble specifying that no foreign country has ever actually been proved to have had a material impact on a U.S. election. It then specifies a series of bureaucratic steps to take in the event that an attempt is made in the future, resulting in possible decisions by the Treasury Department and the president to slap the offending party with sanctions.

“They want this in their pocket to show that, ‘Hey, we’re doing something about this,’” said Erich Ferrari, founder of the Washington-based law firm Ferrari & Associates, which specializes in sanctions law. “It’s hollow.”

Ambassador Daniel Fried, who was coordinator of sanctions policy at the State Department before retiring in early 2017, called the executive order a “mixed bag.”

On the upside, formalizing the decision-making process is better than simply ignoring the problem, he said. “But failure to call out Russia (the preamble is odd in this respect) and the president’s mixed messages in Russia (to say the least) weaken the E.O.’s [Executive Order’s] deterrent impact,” he wrote in an email to VICE News.

Read: Trump has to get tougher on Russia thanks to this obscure ’90s law

“Of course the [Executive Order] is intended in part to derail legislative efforts, but that’s not a fatal mark against it,” he wrote.

Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle who’ve taken a hard line against Russia said the new executive order isn’t enough.

Republican Sen.Marco Rubio and Democrat Chris Van Hollen issued a joint statement promoting their own alternative, the much harsher DETER Act.

That bill would, to some extent at least, wrench the decision about whether to smack Russia for messing with yet another American election out of the president’s hands, and turn it over to the president’s Director of National Intelligence.

“Today’s announcement by the Administration recognizes the threat, but does not go far enough to address it,” the joint statement read. “The United States can and must do more.”

According to the DETER Act, once the DNI made a determination that interference had occurred, the bill would trigger automatic, draconian penalties against Russian banks, energy companies, defense firms, politicians and oligarchs.

“I doubt anyone on Capitol Hill is going to see this and say, ‘Okay, we can take a step back. The President’s got this.’”

The Trump administration is already facing a legal requirement to levy more sanctions on Russia, although not because of any election shenanigans.

That requirement relates to the assassination attempt of a former Russian spy in England earlier this year.

Moscow stands accused of dispatching two assassins to spray the former officer, Sergei Skripal, with a rare nerve agent smuggled inside a perfume bottle. But their choice of a murder weapon triggered an obscure 1991 law requiring the administration sanction any government that uses chemical weapons on its own people. Now the Trump administration has until November to carry out the terms of the law, or find some creative way to wriggle out of them.

Trump’s latest executive order appears to be an attempt to keep Congress from passing a similar law — one that might tie his hands in the future. But it looks unlikely to change any minds in Congress, said David Szakonyi, an expert on Russia at George Washington University.

“I doubt this will have the effect that the administration thinks it will,” Szakonyi told VICE News. “I doubt anyone on Capitol Hill is going to see this and say, ‘OK, we can take a step back. The president’s got this.’”

Cover image: U.S. President Donald Trump greets the crowd as he arrives for his "Make America Great Again" rally in Billings, Montana U.S., September 6, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque