For more than a year, there’s been intense scrutiny of Russia’s sprawling campaign to influence the 2016 election, and of the extent to which Donald Trump’s campaign was complicit in it.
But the question of just what Russia hoped to get from Trump has stayed mostly on the back-burner.
That has obscured a crucial reality. On numerous occasions, in numerous ways, Russians working for or linked to Vladimir Putin’s government have asked Trump or his team to weaken or lift U.S. sanctions on Russia. And — through his public rhetoric, through a weak approach to enforcement, and, most recently, through his resistance to fully implementing a sanctions law passed by Congress — Trump has mostly done what he can to oblige.
Among Russia’s top concerns has been the Magnitsky Act, which was passed by Congress in 2012 in retaliation for Russia’s mistreatment of Sergei Magnitsky, an accountant who died in prison in 2009 — European investigators concluded he was murdered — after exposing an alleged money-laundering scheme that implicated top Russian officials. The law targeted specific Russian officials determined to be involved with Magnitsky’s death, barring them from entering the U.S. or using its banking system.
Then in 2014, President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on a range of Russian institutions including state banks, in retaliation for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine earlier that year. And in December 2016, Obama imposed additional sanctions on Russian nationals and tech companies, including ordering the removal of 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S., in response to Russia’s campaign to influence the U.S. election.
It’s the Magnitsky Act that’s especially enraging to the Putin government, because it hits powerful figures in Russian business and government, whose ongoing support is crucial to Putin, Russia experts say.
“Putin hates targeted sanctions,” said Bill Browder, the American-born hedge-fund manager who employed Magnitsky when he uncovered the alleged money laundering, and has become an outspoken Putin critic. “If the country was sanctioned, they could always bring in planeloads of luxury goods. [Specific sanctions] target, at a precise level, the elite, and they leave the rest of the people alone.”
And as the Russia expert Amy Knight points out in a history of the Magnitsky affair in the New York Review of Books, laws like Magnitsky that punish Russia for internal human rights abuses strike at the source of Putin’s power: his ability to turn the law off and on when it suits him.
The Kremlin’s Quiet Push Against Sanctions
So the Russian government set out to ask for help from Trump. The Magnitsky Act was a topic of conversation at the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between top campaign staff and Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Kremlin-linked lawyer, the latter told Bloomberg last November.
They had already approached him overtly at the start of his campaign: Maria Butina, a top aide to the Russian central banker Alexander Torshin, asked Trump to lift sanctions during the Q&A portion of a speech at a libertarian conference in Las Vegas in July 2015. Trump interrupted Butina’s question to praise Putin and say he wanted better relations with the country.
More overtures followed. In July 2016, Trump advisor Carter Page visited Moscow where he discussed the ways lifting sanctions would be “advantageous” to a Russian state oil company. Later that month, Trump officially received the Republican presidential nomination.
The campaign continued through backchannels. After the election, Sergey Kislyak, then the Russian ambassador to the U.S., called Michael Flynn to discuss the Obama administration’s December 2016 sanctions expelling Russian diplomats, according to documents charging Flynn with lying to federal investigators. Flynn asked Kisylak not to retaliate for those sanctions, suggesting the incoming Trump administration would undermine them.
The push got even more direct once Trump took office. In July 2017, Trump and Putin held a closed-door meeting where they discussed “adoption,” Trump later told the press. That was almost certainly a reference to the sanctions on American adoptions Putin imposed on the U.S. in retaliation for Magnitsky.
Donald Trump, Pushover
Trump appears to have been glad to go along with the Russian pressure campaign. In one key early sign of its willingness to play ball, the Trump campaign in July 2016 gutted the GOP platform’s hardline position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Two months later, another foreign policy advisor, George Papadopoulos, was inveighing against sanctions to Russian news agency Interfax. Papadopoulos would later plead guilty to lying to the FBI in the Russia investigation.
Once Trump took office, however, things became trickier. Despite Flynn’s promises to Kisylak about sanctions, by February Flynn had been fired amid the FBI probe, and legislation punishing Russia beyond the expulsion of the 35 diplomats appeared to be moving forward.
In August 2017, Congress responded to the Russian election interference by passing new sanctions nearly unanimously. The bill required Trump to name businesses and individuals to be added to a list, maintained by the Treasury, of entities with which it is illegal for Americans to do business.
It would have been politically damaging for Trump to veto the sanctions, especially given the ongoing focus on his campaign’s ties to Russia. But in signing the bill, Trump issued a statement protesting what he labelled unconstitutional provisions. Parts of the bill, Trump said, “purport to direct my subordinates in the executive branch to undertake certain diplomatic initiatives, in contravention of the President’s exclusive constitutional authority.”
In retaliation for the new sanctions, Putin expelled hundred of diplomats from Russia. In response, Trump thanked him, saying the State Department’s budget needed cutting anyway. He later said he was being sarcastic.
Still, Trump dragged his feet on implementing the new sanctions law. His administration released the list of 39 businesses nearly a month after an October 2017 deadline had passed. And on January 29 of this year, a day before the list of persons was due, the State Department announced it wouldn’t release one, saying the threat of punishment was punishment enough.
“[S]anctions on specific entities or individuals will not need to be imposed because the legislation is, in fact, serving as a deterrent,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters.
The same day, the Treasury released a list of Russian oligarchs with close ties to Putin, as required by the law. But it didn’t sanction them — Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin suggested he might do so later. Treasury turned out to have cribbed the list from Forbes.
The list was released the same week that three Russian intelligence officials — one of them himself under U.S. sanctions — were reported to have met with CIA director Mike Pompeo in the U.S.
“I think that the Trump administration was persuaded not to publish a narrow list of people to be sanctioned and instead to come out with this broad list of officials that ended up being meaningless,” said Knight, the Russia scholar and the author of Orders to Kill: The Putin Regime and Political Murder. “I think they were pressured by the Kremlin indirectly, possibly through this visit of the three intelligence chiefs.”
The Limits Of The Presidency
And yet, the Trump administration also has done plenty to anger Putin. The son of Yury Chaika, the power player behind Donald Jr.’s Trump Tower meeting, has been added to the Magnitsky list. And the U.S. is arming Ukraine—something Obama never did, and exactly the position his campaign tried to strip out of the GOP platform.
“There are a lot of things that are not great news for Russia under this administration,” said Browder.
Both Knight and Browder said the Kremlin likely has some buyer’s remorse about Trump, after seeing the limits on his ability to carry out their requests. The U.S. president, after all, has much less authority than Russia’s authoritarian leader.
“I think that Putin and his supporters are beginning to realize now that Trump can’t just wave a magic wand and have sanctions go away,” Knight adds. “There are a lot of things he can’t do! I don’t know that they’re so much disappointed in Trump as disappointed in finding out that in fact he has quite a few constraints.”
This post has been updated.