For one thing, it’s not clear what is actually in the order. “I look forward to reviewing the contents of the administration’s executive order,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a written statement. “It is outrageous that it has taken 21 months for President Trump to begin to respond to the Kremlin’s interference in our democracy. In addition, I do not believe this executive order precludes the urgent need for legislation that increases sanctions pressure on the Kremlin for its destabilization of democracies here and around the world, support of a war criminal and terrorism in Syria and its ongoing military aggression in Ukraine.”
Menendez added, “The Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act (DASKA) that I introduced with Senator Graham includes measures to address this behavior as well [as] several comprehensive provisions that better position the United States to defend itself in the future. If the Trump administration is serious about protecting our nation from foreign interference, they should endorse this bipartisan proposal.“
Retired Admiral Mike Rogers, the former NSA director under Trump, underscored how little and late this is in coming. He told an audience in Virginia, “I thought there was an opportunity there that I wish we would have taken advantage of. . . . He opted to go in a different direction and that certainly is his right . . . but I wish we had taken advantage of that.”
Former FBI special agent Clint Watts, a distinguished research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, tells me, “The details are loose on what this order really does, but my interpretation is this focuses sanctions on the ‘doers’ of malign influence and not the ‘decision-makers’ committing to an influence campaign against America.”
He adds, “This approach is weak because it punishes low-hanging fruit — operators doing tactical action, not strategic players such as Putin.” Putin already has shown a willingness to let operatives twist in the wind. “As seen with the [Sergei] Skripal poisoning, Putin is willing to sacrifice the international travel and global banking of assassins, hackers and propagandists. And low-level sanctions will not be a deterrent in his aggressive strategy.”
Moreover, if the purpose of announcing this action is to deter Russian meddling, Trump has already signaled in person and in public with Putin standing right there that he thinks the Russia investigation is a “hoax.” If that is what Trump said publicly, one can only imagine what he said behind closed doors when only a translator was there. (Note to file, Democrats: Subpoena the translator’s notes if you win majorities in one or both houses.)
In sum, “The issue isn’t whether the Administration has the authority to respond.” says Max Bergmann of the Moscow Project. “The issue is that they aren’t responding. Instead of issuing an Executive Order about process they should start implementing the law and announce additional sanctions. This seems like a PR stunt.”
Frankly, if one had to devise a measure that would respond to rotten polling on his lack of concern about Russian meddling, but do absolutely nothing to impair or irritate Putin, you’d come up with something exactly like his toothless executive order that, once the midterms are in the rearview mirror, will never be amount to anything.