President-elect Donald Trump and most congressional Republicans don’t agree on Russia, so when the White House announced its actions to punish the Kremlin for interfering in the U.S. election they did what anyone in a forced marriage would do.
They talked past each other.
The Obama administration’s 11th hour decision to impose new sanctions on five entities and four individuals was meant to show the public that Russia’s involvement in hacking the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta in the myst of an intense presidential election would not go unanswered. Thirty five more Russian intelligence operatives were given 72 hours to get out of the U.S..
Many Congressional Republicans quickly issued backhanded compliments to the outgoing administration, saying the measures were appropriate—but too little, too late.
Trump, for his part, issued a statement that was little more than an eyeroll.
“It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things,” Trump said. “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.”
One of his earliest supporters in Congress, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, went even further. In a brief interview with The Daily Beast, he repeatedly called the sanctions “silly,” “stupid,” and “dumb.”
“For the president to invoke sanctions that can be reversed with a stroke of a pen by Trump on day one, I think it’s pretty stupid,” Hunter said.
“There’s no long term play,” Hunter added. “It’s not going to last. It’s not set in stone. It’s not something the House and Senate passed.”
The disconnect between Trump loyalists and the Republican leadership in the equal branch of government down Pennsylvania Avenue previews what could be an awkward 100 days for the Republican Party as they try to navigate what could be a new approach to a longtime global rival.
One thing was clear, at least for the time being: Republicans want to hit Vladimir Putin head on but haven’t figured out how they’ll navigate around their soon-to-be commander-in-chief.
“Russia does not share America’s interests. In fact, it has consistently sought to undermine them, sowing dangerous instability around the world. While today’s action by the administration is overdue, it is an appropriate way to end eight years of failed policy with Russia,” Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement. “And it serves as a prime example of this administration’s ineffective foreign policy that has left America weaker in the eyes of the world.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell echoed Ryan’s remarks.
“The Russians are not our friends. And clearly the Obama administration has not yet dissuaded them from attempting to breach our cybersecurity systems, or harass our diplomats in Moscow,” McConnell said in a statement. “Sanctions against the Russian intelligence services are a good initial step, however late in coming.”
He added, “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.”
But the man who will soon be vested with implementing the “overwhelming response” and his allies didn’t seemed fazed by all the talk of crime and punishment.
Throughout the campaign Trump has had a soft spot for Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. At one point he jokingly invited the Russians to hack former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email.
Trump has spent several weeks of his transition period rejecting the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia was behind the election year hacks—instead fixating on it as partisan attack meant to delegitimize his presidency.
His allies reiterated that on Thursday.
“This is really about the DNC’s breach, they didn’t have the proper security, I guess the protocols in place and someone was able to hack the information,” Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the President-elect Trump, told CNN. “We are not in favor of foreign governments interfering in our elections or interfering in our intelligence but we’re also not in favor of our intelligence interfering with elections after the fact.”
Rep. Ted Yoho took it a step—well, several steps—further and blamed Clinton’s email server for the attack.
“If you want to go back to how did we get to this point, think of Mrs. Clinton having an unsecured server in an unsecured room with classified documents,” Yoho said in an interview on CNN, after saying he had “doubts” Russia was behind the cyber attacks.
In a conference call with reporters, during which Obama administration officials inexplicably spoke only on background, those staffers acknowledged that many of their boss’s actions could be undone with the stroke of a pen by his predecessor.
“These are executive actions. So if a future President decided that he wanted to allow in a large tranche of Russian intelligence agents, presumably a future President could invite that action,” said the senior administration official. “We think it would be inadvisable.”
To Hunter, the Trump ally, that’s what makes the whole exercise ridiculous. Obama “is kicking people out of the country, right? Once again, this is all stuff that Trump can undo on day one. It just seems kind of stupid. It doesn’t make sense to me,” Hunter told The Daily Beast.
“Obviously, Trump has his own views on Russia and him and Putin will have a different relationship than Obama and Putin,” Hunter added. “[Sen.] Lindsey Graham and [Sen. John] McCain have been talking about doing massive sanctions. [Rep.] Adam Kinzinger, a buddy of mine, has been talking about doing them, too. Those have to go through committee, get voted on by the House and Senate, and signed by the President.”
That would be the new president. The one who has been so friendly to Russia’s oligarchs and its leader.