The Trump administration said Wednesday it would impose new sanctions against Russia as punishment for its use of a nerve agent in an attempt in March to assassinate British citizen and ex-Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter.
The sanctions again highlighted the gap between President Trump’s conciliatory language toward Russia and the tough position taken by many in Congress and within the administration itself.
Trump, who has resisted congressional insistence on additional sanctions on Russia for election interference and other activities, appeared to have had little choice in the matter, however. Under a 1991 law, he was required to act once the administration determined Russian responsibility for a chemical or biological weapons attack.
A release from the State Department said that such determination had now been made by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over the attack this spring in Salisbury, England — following a British government conclusion that the administration had said months ago it accepted.

One is tempted to see this as damage control after President Trump’s Helsinki performance and criticism over his lack of personal involvement in preventing midterm election interference. Alternatively, cynics might say this is an attempt to show special counsel Robert S. Mueller III that he’s really not in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pocket.

Perhaps the announcement intended to counteract the sweetness-and-light tone coming from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who visited Russia and extended an invitation to Russian lawmakers to visit (Do we know who these people are, and whether they are subject to any sanctions?). Paul, you may recall, was one of the few lawmakers to praise Trump’s obsequiousness at the Helsinki summit.

Paul was, therefore, the perfect courier to deliver a letter from Trump to Putin. “I was honored to deliver a letter from President Trump to President Vladimir Putin’s administration.,” Paul tweeted. “The letter emphasized the importance of further engagement in various areas including countering terrorism, enhancing legislative dialogue and resuming cultural exchanges.” Unfortunately, there was nothing in Paul’s statement about chemical-weapons use against our ally, the occupation of Ukraine or Russian interference in our election.

If you think Jill Stein and Rand Paul have the same views on Russia, you’re onto something. Tina Nguyen writes in Vanity Fair:

Perhaps better than anyone else in Congress, Paul’s unusual position on the political spectrum reflects the growing convergence between the far left and the far right, which have found common ground in isolationism, distrust of authorities, and an affinity for Russia — his father Ron, a libertarian icon in his own right, has followed suit, frequently appearing as a guest on RT, a Russian state TV network adopted by both the extreme left and the extreme right as an alternative news source. . . . Whereas Russia is one of the few areas where the vast majority of the G.O.P. breaks with Trump, condemning his slavish devotion to Putin, Paul is — for once — truly aligned with the president, occupying the space where the screwball right and the White House converge: in Moscow.

And there, in their embrace of Putin, they both converge with lefty Kremlin lovers like Jill Stein.

Whatever the rationale for this latest move, new sanctions are long overdue. “Russia’s use of chemical weapons in the attempted murder of former Russian intelligence officer on British soil was a brazen assault that directly contravenes the Chemical Weapons Convention, a fundamental pillar of international arms control efforts, and threatens our stalwart ally, the United Kingdom,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. “Since the attack, I have repeatedly called on the administration to seriously address Russia’s ongoing threats to international stability and security. In March, I along with five of my colleagues wrote [the] president, asking him to formally determine whether Russia violated international law through the use of chemical or biological weapons and, if so, to impose requisite mandatory sanctions.”

Menendez concluded: “I’m pleased to see today that under congressional pressure, the administration has now begun to implement the law and impose these critical sanctions. It is clear that congressional pressure on the administration to fully implement the law is vital.”

It should not be lost on anyone that the announcement came from the State Department, not the White House, during Trump’s vacation week. In a written statement, department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said:

Following the use of a “Novichok” nerve agent in an attempt to assassinate UK citizen Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia Skripal, the United States, on August 6, 2018, determined under the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991 (CBW Act) that the Government of the Russian Federation has used chemical or biological weapons in violation of international law or has used lethal chemical or biological weapons against its own nationals.
Following a 15-day Congressional notification period, these sanctions will take effect upon publication of a notice in the Federal Register, expected on or around August 22, 2018.

The new sanctions are another reminder that, if we could only get rid of Trump, the rest of the administration might be able to construct a coherent, tough Russia policy. Ah, well.