The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trump administration’s weird explanation for withholding Russia sanctions

President Trump speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images)

After plenty of chatter, we may be wading into the first real constitutional dispute of the Trump administration: On Monday night, the State Department announced it would not impose Russia sanctions that Congress overwhelmingly passed in mid-2017.

But its justification for doing so has some gaping logical holes.

Here's what the State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said:

“Today, we have informed Congress that this legislation and its implementation are deterring Russian defense sales. Since the enactment of the . . . legislation, we estimate that foreign governments have abandoned planned or announced purchases of several billion dollars in Russian defense acquisitions.”

A State Department official added that there was, in fact, no need for new sanctions “because the legislation is, in fact, serving as a deterrent.”

There are a few problems with this.

The first is that the legislation was meant as a punishment, not a deterrent. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act explicitly says at the top that it is “to provide congressional review and to counter aggression by the Governments of Iran, the Russian Federation, and North Korea, and for other purposes.” The law says it's about “countering” something, rather than preventing something. And while it lists Iran and North Korea, it was widely billed as a response to Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The second problem is that, even if it were a successful deterrent, it doesn't seem to be deterring the specific behavior that spurred the sanctions. Mere hours before the State Department issued this statement ahead of the deadline for imposing sanctions, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said that Russia hadn't really scaled back its election interference efforts.

The Washington Post examines how, more than a year into his presidency, Trump continues to reject evidence that Russia supported his run for the White House. (Video: Dalton Bennett, Thomas LeGro, John Parks, Jesse Mesner-Hage/The Washington Post)

“I haven't seen a significant decrease in their activity,” Pompeo told BBC News. He added: “I have every expectation that they will continue to try and do that, but I'm confident that America will be able to have a free and fair election, [and] that we will push back in a way that is sufficiently robust that the impact they have on our election won't be great.”

So to recap, the head of America's foreign intelligence agency is suggesting Russia will attempt to do what it did in the 2016 election again in 2018 and that he hasn't “seen a significant decrease in their activity.” But then the State Department announces that it doesn't need to impose the sanctions that were meant to punish that behavior because the legislation is already serving as a deterrent?

The sanctions themselves specifically target those who do business with Russian defense and intelligence firms, aiming to harm Russia's economy. The State Department argues that foreign governments have indeed backed out of doing such business because of the mere threat of sanctions. But if the overall goal is to deter future election interference, Pompeo seems to argue that hasn't really happened.

For all of Trump's talk about building an alliance with Russia as president, his administration has taken some tough positions on it, as Commentary's Noah Rothman points out. Even as the drama Monday night played out, for example, the Treasury Department was preparing to release a blacklist of wealthy Russian oligarchs linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But Trump's reluctance to sign these sanctions into law has been crystal clear — he called them “seriously flawed” and apparently only signed them because Congress could easily override his veto — and his continued doubts about Russian meddling in the 2016 election can't help but make this decision seem convenient.

The contrasting narratives on the purpose and effectiveness of these sanctions could use some explaining. Otherwise, it risks looking as if it's just ignoring Congress's will to cozy up to Moscow.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders spoke at the daily press briefing on Aug. 2. (Video: Reuters, Photo: CARLOS BARRIA/Reuters)