The Hidden F-U in the White House Russia Sanctions Response

Here’s another one of those developments which is both jaw-dropping and somehow entirely predictable. You’ve likely seen the reports that the Trump administration violated the spirit though probably not the letter of the new Russia sanctions law by simply deciding not to impose any sanctions. But the law also mandated that the administration produce a list of “senior political figures and oligarchs” in Russia. These individuals were not to be sanctioned themselves. But the list is meant to impose some stigma and, more importantly, serve as an implicit signal about which individuals might be sanctioned in the future.

The administration put out that list along with news it wasn’t going to impose sanctions. But many noted that it seemed almost identical to a list of oligarchs published in 2017 by Forbes. The most amazing thing is that when Buzzfeed asked the Treasury whether there was any truth to this, they said, candidly enough, yes. That’s where we got it.

Now, what’s important to understand here is that this isn’t like your boss asking you to come up with a list of the best vendors for a specific service or checking movie listings for a friend. This is Congress mandating the administration do an independent fact-finding exercise making at least some use of the resources of the US government, which are of course vast. It’s not supposed to be having someone Google ‘rich Russians’ or ‘Russian oligarchs’. Notably, what the law mandated was really a list of Putin cronies – “senior political figures and oligarchs.” The list the administration cribbed from was just people with the highest net worth. So it is actually very different from what the law mandated. It includes dissidents, or at least people who’ve been targeted by Putin along with the cronies and insiders.

This isn’t the biggest deal in the world certainly. But it’s a pretty clear sign of flagrantly crapping on the law because they didn’t want to sign it in the first place and feel like they got trapped into signing it. Given that it’s the Trump administration it’s always possible that this is simply an example of manifest incompetence and sloppiness. But even for them, it seems much more like a big F-U to the entire sanctions mandate.