(Bloomberg) -- Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin are forcing Donald Trump to pick sides: undo sanctions the U.S. just imposed on Russia for hacking e-mails before last month’s election or set aside a campaign vow to improve relations with Moscow.
Hours after the U.S. president imposed new penalties for alleged Russian hacking and ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian operatives Thursday, President-elect Trump issued a terse statement suggesting he was still deciding how to respond.
Then Russia’s President Putin further complicated matters Friday, saying he wouldn’t expel American diplomats in the usual tit-for-tat retaliation because he was waiting for Trump to take office, restraint that drew praise in a tweet from Trump.
While the sanctions and expulsions, imposed by executive order, can be undone with the stroke of a pen, Trump may find it politically difficult to do so, as key Republicans in Congress expressed support for Obama’s move. U.S. intelligence agencies also issued a report Thursday on their evidence that Russia was behind the hacking that produced a stream of leaks damaging Trump’s campaign opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Obama’s moves “likely will box in the Trump administration, if not legally then certainly politically, because it’s going to be hard for the administration to come in and say on day one all the reports were untrue, the FBI was wrong, the CIA was wrong,” said Eric Lorber, a senior adviser at the Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It will be difficult for the incoming administration to make that argument to the American people and say the sanctions should be completely done away with."
“It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things,” Trump said in his statement Thursday. “Nevertheless, in the interest of our country and its great people, I will meet with leaders of the intelligence community next week in order to be updated on the facts of this situation."
Without waiting for that briefing, Trump said in his Tweet on Friday: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) - I always knew he was very smart!”
Russia repeated its denial of any role in the cyberattacks, and Putin said in a statement from the Kremlin that his country wouldn’t “send anyone away.” That appears to be an invitation -- and a challenge -- for Trump to make good on promises to patch up ties with Russia that have soured badly in the final years of the Obama administration.
Read more about the U.S. intelligence findings on Russian hacking.
Obama aides were quick to point out how awkward a reversal of its latest measures would be.
“If a future president wants to welcome a large tranche of Russian intelligence officials into the United States, he could do so, but we don’t think that makes much sense,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in an e-mail. “If a future administration wants to lift sanctions against senior Russian intelligence units to make it easier for them to engage in malicious cyberactivity, they could do so, but we don’t think that would make much sense.”
Equally significant, top Republican lawmakers expressed as much determination as Democrats to investigate Russia’s role in the hacking, and some called for even tougher sanctions against Putin’s government.
“The Russians are not our friends,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement. “Sanctions against the Russian intelligence services are a good initial step, however late in coming. As the next Congress reviews Russian actions against networks associated with the U.S. election, we must also work to ensure that any attack against the United States is met with an overwhelming response.”
Senator John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a vocal critic of Trump’s pledge to seek detente with Putin, scheduled a session of the panel for Jan. 5 to hear from top U.S. intelligence officials on “Foreign Cyber Threats to the United States.”
Obama’s action was the second time in a week that his administration moved forcefully in its final weeks on an issue where Trump has signaled he intends a drastic change in course. The U.S. abstained in the United Nations Security Council, allowing passage of a resolution condemning Israeli settlements. Signaling he’ll make a quick about-face on criticism of Israel, Trump tweeted on Wednesday, “Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!”
Read about Israel’s Netanyahu seeking a fresh start with Trump
The 13-page report on the Russian cyberattacks issued Thursday by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security details the tactics and malware used by the hackers. The analysis includes newly declassified information exposing part of the secret infrastructure that the agencies said the Russian government has used for years to attack the U.S.
That’s important because Trump’s team has said repeatedly that the president-elect wasn’t willing to condemn Russia because the evidence hadn’t been presented, even as published reports indicated the FBI wasn’t willing to go as far as other intelligence agencies in its findings.
“We agree that foreign governments shouldn’t be hacking American institutions, period. It’s not like we condone the hacking of institutions and entities and businesses in America. Of course not. It’s wrong and it’s something we don’t agree with,” Reince Priebus, Trump’s appointee as chief of staff, said on Fox News Thursday night. “However, it would be nice if we could get to a place where the intelligence community, in unison, can tell us what it is that has been going on.”
When asked if Trump would reverse the actions against Russia, Priebus demurred, saying the president-elect needed to consult with military and intelligence advisers. On a conference call Friday, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said there are no immediate plans for Trump or his representatives to contact Putin’s government before inauguration day.
“The priority right now is for the president-elect to get an update next week from the intelligence community,” he said.
Russian officials made clear that they saw the intelligence report and Obama’s actions as purely political acts. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on a conference call that Obama was trying to “completely ruin Russian-American relations” and undermine Trump’s foreign policy plans.
Obama’s latest actions “will mildly impede the likely détente between the incoming administration of Donald Trump and Russia, but we still expect Trump to ease Ukraine-related sanctions in 2017,” analysts with the New York-based Eurasia Group said in a note Friday.
But the sanctions stemming from the cyberattacks will be harder to undo, according to analysts who said the Obama administration had laid out the evidence against Russia in unprecedented detail.
“The goal here was to make it abundantly clear that Russia was behind the hacking attempts,” said John Hughes, a vice president at Albright Stonebridge Group and a former sanctions expert at both the Treasury and State departments. “I can’t remember a time that they’ve done so much to declassify certain information and make it clear how Russia is doing this and pointing a smoking gun at the Russian intelligence services. That is pretty significant.”
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