President Trump on Wednesday signed legislation sanctioning Russia for its purported hacking of last year’s presidential election. The new law not only needlessly threatens to escalate an already-tense situation with Russia, it also undermines the separation of powers, as it denies the president the ability to remove those sanctions as he sees fit.
Constitutionally and historically, the president is delegated broad authority in foreign policy—particularly in matters of diplomacy, which includes imposing or removing economic sanctions. Compounding the irritation, this law would not have passed without the overwhelming support of congressional Republicans. That’s right—the president’s own party sought to hamstring the president’s ability to govern. If only the Republicans had been so scrupulous about restricting President George W. Bush’s ability to wage what amounted to a limitless war in the Middle East.
At the 100-day mark of the Trump Administration, I demonstrated that the claims from Trump’s detractors that he is an authoritarian are ridiculous. Now we see that if Trump were to have dictatorial aspirations, he would make a pretty lousy one. His signature on the new sanctions underscores how Trump is the most misunderstood president in modern times. Apparently, he truly does respect Congress’s ability to check the executive branch. But that’s not much of a consolation prize—especially considering how idiotic the sanctions are, and the constitutional powers the president voluntarily gave up.
First, the sanctions against Russia would do nothing to curb Moscow’s aggressive behavior. Further, whatever U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) may think, these sanctions will have little retaliatory effect on the Russians. Remember, Russia has been under sanctions since 2014. Yet those sanctions—enacted by both the U.S. government and the governments in Europe (the EU is one of Russia’s most important trading partners)—have apparently done little to cow Russian misbehavior.
Had the sanctions been effective, it is likely that Russia would never have invaded Syria in 2015; continued supporting pro-Russian separatists in the contested Donbass region of Ukraine; and committed what some of our more preposterous intelligence “experts” have dubbed an “electronic 9/11” by purportedly “hacking” America’s election in 2016, and “stealing” it from Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Plus, the Washington Post reported last month that the Obama Administration did (weakly) respond to Russia’s alleged meddling last year. President Obama reportedly ordered American cyber forces to plant “electronic bombs” throughout critical Russian infrastructure, to be “detonated” at a time of our choosing. These “electronic bombs” are malicious computer code that U.S. intelligence agencies covertly installed into key Russian civilian systems, which they’d hacked. The code will lie dormant, awaiting to receive a signal from American cyber forces to begin disrupting the Russian infrastructure, including the nation’s power grid, in which they’d been installed. If true, it’s a fairly aggressive response from the Obama Administration.
It’s akin to the Russians deploying nuclear missiles to nearby Cuba as a means of preventing America from toppling the Castro regime. When the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded in 1962, we rightly took it as a major escalation and almost went to war to prevent nuclear missiles from remaining 90 miles away from U.S. shores. Between the “electronic bombs” in key Russian systems and the economic sanctions (as well as the Russophobic rhetoric coming from America’s top leaders), how do we imagine Russia might respond?
How will the new sanctions protect American interests? They won’t.
With the new round of sanctions being imposed (after the previous ones were a clear failure), EU High Commissioner Jean-Claude Juncker, in a hilarious reversal of positions, has emphatically stated Europe will protect the “national interests” of its members by not supporting the new sanctions. This is interesting, since Russia is far more dependent on economic relations with Europe than with the United States. If we really wanted to harm Russia economically, we would have ensured that all of Europe was onboard before taking such a provocative action on our own. The sanctions are at once aggravating and utterly toothless—a display of weakness unlikely to deter Russian aggression.
Indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man who is presiding over what I believe to be a country in terminal decline, will have been given another strategic gift by incompetent American leadership. (This is a bipartisan criticism, by the way, though I am far more irritated at the GOP than I am the Democrats. At least they’re performing their function as the opposition party). All these feckless American sanctions will do is drive the image-conscious Russians farther away from America and into the not-so-loving arms of China. At the same time, we’re exacerbating the growing transatlantic rift, thereby pushing Europe further into Russia’s increasingly Easternized orbit.
Now, because of these sanctions, any hopes of a rapprochement with Moscow are gone. Some may be inclined to think that the sanctions would give President Trump greater leeway with Russia; that the presence of the sanctions would allow for Trump to approach the Russians from a position of strength and offer to remove those sanctions in exchange for abandoning either its Ukraine endeavor or its mission in Syria. If only it were so.
Under the current law, the president would have to seek congressional approval to get the sanctions lifted. And, when you have both leading Democrats and Republicans implicitly assuming that the Russian cyber attacks last year were about getting Trump elected (and that Trump “colluded” with Russian intelligence to defeat Hillary Clinton), good luck getting Congress to overturn the sanctions for any reason.
By forcing Trump to seek congressional authorization to remove sanctions, he is no longer viewed as America’s new tough guy. In fact, Putin and his fellow siloviki likely view Trump as they viewed Obama: weak and not in control of U.S. foreign policy (Putin said as much in his strange interview with Megyn Kelly recently).
Generally, I support Congress taking a more active role in making legislation. And legislators certainly get a vote on American foreign policy. But their greatest influence resides in the domestic policy realm—the one area where Congress has been consistently unwilling to lead. Perhaps Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA’s Osama Bin Laden unit, is right: Washington really is led by the War Party. This law not only sets an ill-advised and dangerous precedent for future executives, but it also means that, on top of everything else in Washington, even foreign policy will grind to a halt (unless, of course, there are more countries in need of bombing).
Generally, I support Congress taking a more active role in making legislation. And legislators certainly get a vote on American foreign policy. But their greatest influence resides in the domestic policy realm—the one area where Congress has been consistently unwilling to lead.
Keep in mind, had President Trump vetoed the sanctions bill, Congress would have had an overwhelming majority to pass the bill anyway. Some Trump supporters would claim he made the best choice he could under the circumstances by avoiding the embarrassment of a veto-override. And, if Trump were any other president, I’d agree. However, Trump is not a typical American president. He is truly a man without a party. The congressional Republicans, with their majority, have done more damage to their party’s president than any Democrat could have done. Thus, it should be clear that all Trump has is the 62 million Americans who voted for him last November. He needs them now more than ever.
With the 2018 midterms coming up, Trump could have taken the public defeat of his potential veto over these silly sanctions on Russia. While it would have been painted as a devastating defeat for Trump in the mainstream media, the Trump team could have argued that the defeat merely proved how important it was for fundamental changes to be made in our congressional leadership—in both parties. It also would have illustrated the kind of uphill battle that Trump was waging against the “Deep State.” This would have whipped up Trump’s base of support to vote out every single wayward incumbent seeking reelection next year. It is clear that both the Democratic and Republican Parties are opposed to Trump’s administration, and will stop at nothing to stymie him.
The passage of this sanctions bill into law is arguably the greatest misstep of the Trump Administration to date. Trump promised to drain the swamp and enact the will of the people. But that’s hard to do when the president hands over executive power to the very swamp creatures he was supposed to vanquish on our behalf.
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