On his 600th day in office, following months of dire warnings from his own intelligence officials, President Trump finally did something to try and prevent Russian interference in the upcoming Midterm elections. But appearances can be deceiving, especially when it comes to Trump and Russia.
An executive order signed by Trump on September 12th declared a national emergency to deal with interference in U.S. elections, which it rightly describes as “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” But Trump’s executive order does little to stop it. It targets unspecified, large companies while giving the president full discretion to choose from a range of sanctions that have failed to deter Russian aggression in the past. Democrats in Congress blasted the order as toothless. Daleep Singh, a former assistant Treasury secretary in the Obama administration, testified before Congress that it represented more a press release than a change in policy.
The real purpose of the executive order, Trump’s critics maintain, isn’t to deter Russian election meddling. It’s to deter far tougher legislation in Congress. Two bipartisan bills pending before the Senate would inflict severe economic pain on Russia if it continues to meddle in American politics. One measure, dubbed the “sanctions bill from hell” by its co-sponsor, Senator Lindsey Graham, rattled nerves when it appeared in Moscow newspapers over the summer. Both Graham’s bill and the leading effort, introduced in January by Senators Chris Van Hollen and Marco Rubio, threaten to shut off the flow of U.S. dollars to the Kremlin.
It may come as a surprise to many Americans that some of the money paying for Russia’s bad behavior comes from the United States. The Kremlin has borrowed billions of dollars from U.S. investors over the years through sales of Russian sovereign debt, which effectively are loans to Vladimir Putin’s government. Yes, you read that right: public pension funds from New York to California, along with asset managers, hedge funds, and U.S. banks are financing a regime that is deliberately trying to undermine American democracy and the U.S.-led Western alliance. A Moscow-based credit rating agency estimated last month that the United States holds 8 percent of Russia’s sovereign debt — or more than $12 billion, based on the latest figures from the Russian Central Bank.
Cutting off these financial flows is the kind of serious step missing from Trump’s executive order. The administration’s reason for rejecting sanctions on Russian debt was outlined in a congressionally-mandated study by the Treasury Department earlier this year. The concern is over the “negative spillover effects” on global financial markets and businesses. In other words, the White House is worried that sanctioning Russian debt might do economic harm to America’s friends and allies — something that doesn’t seem to apply to the president’s trade war with Canada. And Treasury’s warnings have proved overblown. Since April, when ruble debt was more popular outside Russia than ever before, foreign investors have been quietly dumping their holdings with none of the predicted upheaval.
The only economy that will be seriously harmed by sanctions on Russian bonds is Russia’s. It would put downward pressure on the ruble and drive up Russia’s borrowing costs, forcing Putin to scrap his ambitious spending plans for what is likely to be his last term in office. More importantly, it would put Russia in the same league as Iran and Venezuela, the only two other nations that have had their debt sanctioned by the United States, according to the Congressional Research Service. Both Senate bills go a step further, and would also bar Americans from doing business with big Russian banks like Sberbank. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said such an action would be a declaration of “economic war” and promised to retaliate “economically, politically, or, if necessary, by other means.”
There’s no good reason for the White House to reject these penalties, serious as they are, or even tougher ones, because there’s an easy way for Russia to avoid them: Don’t interfere in U.S. elections. Without a sure, strong response, the American electoral system remains as vulnerable as it was before Trump’s executive order. It’s clear that existing sanctions weren’t enough to stop Russia from wreaking havoc in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Van Hollen and Rubio’s bill, the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines, or Deter Act, would bring a cruise missile to the fight; the president is bringing a pop gun. “That’s why it is imperative that the Senate and House take action because, clearly, the administration abdicated its responsibility in this area,” Van Hollen told me. It remains to be seen whether Congress can do what the president cannot or whether Trump’s executive order will lay the matter to rest.
It’s important to remember what’s at stake. Confidence in our elections, the foundation of American democracy, was dealt a serious blow in the 2016 presidential race. It was further weakened by Trump’s refusal to accept the findings of his own intelligence community on Russian interference.
Now, the president’s long-delayed response sends the signal that the United States can’t or won’t do what it takes to protect its sovereignty. This abject failure of leadership raises troubling questions about where the president’s loyalties lie. It suggests once again that Trump is putting the interests of Russia above that of the country he was elected to lead.