The most hysterical overreactions to President Donald Trump’s press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin have accused President Trump of treason; compared his performance to Kristallnacht, Pearl Harbor, and the 9/11 attack; declared war against Russia; and called on the U.S. military to remove President Trump from office in a coup.
All of these hysterics are predicated on the idea that Trump is a hapless victim of Putin’s sinister manipulation, if not an outright agent of the Kremlin, a veritable Manchurian candidate. Those allegations are difficult to stomach when looking at Trump’s actions towards Russia. His administration has been quite hard on them. It is not difficult to make the case he has been tougher than his predecessor Barack Obama, especially considering Obama’s soft response to what his party now insists was an “attack” on par with Pearl Harbor.
Sanctions: The Trump administration imposed several rounds of tough sanctions against Russian individuals and entities over the past two years. The sanctions announced in March and June of 2018 were explicitly in response to Russian cyberwarfare, which somewhat perplexed media organizations comfortable with the storyline that Trump does not care about hackers and had to be restrained by Congress from lifting every sanction against Russia.
Quite a few of the persons and operations targeted by Trump administration sanctions were directly linked to the 2016 “election meddling” case. Others were sanctioned over Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Crimea, and for helping Iran and North Korea evade sanctions against them.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the indictment in March 2017 of four Russians for hacking millions of Yahoo accounts in 2014. Two of the indicted were officers of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). “The criminal conduct at issue, carried out and otherwise facilitated by officers from an FSB unit that serves as the FBI’s point of contact in Moscow on cybercrime matters, is beyond the pale,” remarked Acting Assistant Attorney General Mary McCord.
Russia’s Analytical Credit Ratings Agency issued a report in July that found up to 21 percent of the Russian economy has been affected by sanctions dating from 2014 to the present. Moscow’s counter-sanctions were found to have contributed to a decline in Russian household incomes of two to three percent over the same period.
Trump signed a sanctions bill in August 2017 despite Russian warnings that it amounted to a “full-scale trade war,” and criticism from Trump himself that the bill was “seriously flawed.” The president has pushed ahead with several measures against Russia that he expressed personal disagreement with. Does that make him softer or tougher against Moscow?
Russian diplomats and intelligence officers expelled. Another action Trump voiced reservations about but proceeded with anyway was the shuttering of the Russian consulate in Seattle in March, along with the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomatic personnel and intelligence officers. In a Russian consulate, it is not easy to tell where the diplomatic personnel end and the intelligence officers begin.
12 Russian intelligence officers stationed at the United Nations in New York were also ordered to leave. “Here in New York, Russia uses the United Nations as a safe haven for dangerous activities within our own borders,” charged the Trump administration’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley.
This action was taken in response to the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in London with a military-grade nerve agent. The Kremlin was furious, insisting it had nothing to do with the Skripal hit despite a considerable amount of evidence against it. This is something to bear in mind when speculating about whether it would ever be possible to make the Russians admit to something far sketchier and more deniable, such as meddling in an election.
Cybersecurity: In December 2017, the Trump administration banned the use of software from Russian cybersecurity giant Kaspersky Labs, citing concerns about security exploits in the software and “ties between certain Kaspersky officials and Russian intelligence and other government agencies.” Kaspersky sued the Trump administration over the ban, but has made little progress in the courts so far; a motion for injunction filed by Kaspersky was denied in the U.S. Court of Appeals last weekend.
President Trump’s National Security Strategy made cybersecurity a top priority and named Russia one of the top threat vectors, in addition to repeatedly citing Russia as a major military and economic security concern.
The administration has also worked with state governments to protect election infrastructure, crucial for preventing actual “election hacking,” a term often confused with influence operations designed to “meddle” in elections by confusing voters. Unsurprisingly, not everyone was completely satisfied with the administration’s efforts at a meeting with lawmakers in May, but even some Democrats critical of the administration admitted that election infrastructure is now in better shape than it was in 2016.
Enforcing arms control violations: The Trump administration punished Russian companies in December 2017 for helping the Kremlin develop a cruise missile that violated Cold War arms control treaties.
The administration brushed aside Russian complaints that some U.S. anti-missile technology also violates the treaties and said export controls slapped on the Russian companies were intended to “change the economic calculus” of the Putin government.
Weapons to Ukraine: The Trump administration approved the sale of $41.5 million in lethal weapons to Ukraine in December 2017, taking a step to defend Ukraine from Russian aggression that the Obama administration refused to take after Congress authorized such sales in the 2014 Ukraine Freedom Support Act.
The decision was reportedly made personally by President Trump after consulting with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Trump did this even though he was well aware his supporters were worried about the U.S. getting drawn into an escalating Ukraine conflict, and that Russia would be strongly displeased by the weapons sales.
Enforcing the “red line” in Syria: President Trump ordered missile strikes against Russia’s ally Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons by dictator Bashar Assad. Trump directly called out Russia for supporting the Assad regime and taunted the Russian military for its inability to protect the “gas killing animal” in Damascus from American weapons.
When Russian military contractors aided Syrian forces in a February attack on a position held by Kurdish and Arab forces with a small number of American special forces, the Americans utterly annihilated the Russian unit while taking no casualties themselves. The exact number of Russians killed is a matter of dispute, as is their precise identity, but they are believed to have come from a mercenary unit employed by the Kremlin for plausibly deniable operations.
Trump approved pre-summit indictments: Here is a surprise entry for the list. When the Justice Department announced the indictment of 12 Russians on charges of election meddling just before his summit with Putin, it was widely assumed by the president’s critics that DOJ timed the indictments to rebuke and embarrass Trump.
Instead, it was reported on Tuesday that President Trump made the choice to announce the indictments only 72 hours before the summit, believing it might “strengthen his hand in the talks” with Putin, as sources put it.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had previously disclosed Trump was briefed on the indictments but did not indicate Trump made the decision to announce them before the summit. Trump himself disingenuously claimed last weekend that he “hadn’t thought” about discussing the indictments with Putin until that very moment.
It should be noted that all of the above actions have critics who think stronger measures could have been taken, and it would be hard to argue that the Trump administration’s messaging has been chaotic at times, making it harder for the White House to press the notion that it has been extraordinarily tough on Russia. What this administration says about Russia can be hard to follow sometimes, but what it does sends a much clearer message.