Democrats didn’t wait to assemble the facts before they accused President Donald Trump of rewarding “thugs” in the Russian intelligence service by lifting certain sanctions. The facts don’t support them.
The Trump administration Thursday revised sanctions on the Russian intelligence service (FSB) to correct an unintended consequence of broader penalties placed on Russia by President Barack Obama. That prompted a hair-trigger response from Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, and others.
Pelosi: “Less than two weeks after walking into the White House, President Trump lifts sanctions on the Russian Security Service. Vladimir Putin’s thugs meddle with an American election, and President Trump gives them a thank you present.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-California: “Russia attacked our democracy. It should be punished. Instead, President Trump is easing sanctions against its team of hackers, the FSB.’’
Trump: “I haven’t eased anything.’’
Sean Spicer, Trump press secretary: “Regular course of action.”
The Facts: They support Trump and his spokesman.
The December 29 sanctions imposed by the Obama administration were not intended to ban the U.S. sale of cellphones, tablets and other consumer electronics to Russia. But they had that effect, by barring U.S. firms from getting the permits needed from the FSB to sell in Russia. The FSB has regulatory as well as intelligence responsibilities.
Trump’s change does not materially benefit the FSB, except in a minuscule way. It allows U.S. firms to pay the FSB a required fee of up to $5,000 per year to export encryption-capable consumer electronics to that country. It’s of more benefit to the U.S. sellers and Russian buyers of those devices. It’s not unusual to fine-tune sanctions to permit certain transactions.
Now, the Treasury Department will allow “certain transactions” with the FSB “that are necessary and ordinarily incident to requesting certain licenses and authorizations for the importation, distribution, or use of certain information technology products in the Russian Federation.”
Democrats in particular are incensed at alleged Russian hacking of their party’s communications in the campaign. And lawmakers from both parties have been watching for a sign that Trump will try to ease Obama’s Russian sanctions in a consequential way, given his cozy rhetoric about Putin during and after the campaign. This isn’t it.
Republican Sen. John McCain, hawkish on Russian sanctions, shrugged off the revision as an apparent “technical fix.” The same thought was voiced by Democrat Jake Sullivan, a senior policy adviser to Hillary Clinton, who said in a televised interview that former Obama administration officials viewed the Trump move as “a technical correction.”