Congress imposed a new round of sanctions on Russia in a near-unanimous 517 to 5 vote last August. At the time, President Trump expressed his displeasure with the vote, despite signing the bill into law.
The Trump administration missed the initial October 1st deadline to impose penalties on certain Russian entities named in the law. On October 26th, they finally began to name targeted individuals, as mandated by the new law. The next deadline in the bill was yesterday, as the administration was due to impose these sanctions and produce a list of businesses and enterprises which do business with the aforementioned Russian entities. They completed half of that task.
However, as it pertains to the sanctions—the main thrust of this bill—Trump's State Department literally just said “nah.” As to why the Trump administration claims they are not needed? Per State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert:
“We estimate that foreign governments have abandoned planned or announced purchases of several billion dollars in Russian defense acquisitions.”
Essentially, they are arguing that the Russian sanctions in place are already acting as a deterrent, but that's not why this new round of sanctions were passed. It says so right in the name of the law (emphasis mine): Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.
Countering is not deterring. Countering is punishing. These sanctions are in response to the Russian attack on our elections, and the beneficiary of that attack says that they are not necessary. It is the job of the legislature to pass laws, and for the executive branch to enforce them. If the executive branch is not faithfully enforcing laws passed by Congress, that is the definition of a constitutional crisis. Given that Trump's own CIA director disagrees with his State Department's assessment that the existing sanctions are acting as a deterrent, it's hard to say this argument is being made in good faith, as Mike Pompeo told the BBC that he hasn't “seen a significant decrease in their activity.” He also expects them to mess with our upcoming midterm elections.
“Of course. 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.”
The Trump administration does have a point when they say that the sanctions are redundant, as some critics at the time of passage argued. However, any nuance around their position went out the window the moment Trump signed the bill into law. It's his responsibility to enforce anything passed by Congress that he signs into law, and by not doing so, he is abdicating his constitutional responsibility.
Granted, by this definition, we have constitutional crises everywhere. The executive branch has always chosen to not enforce some laws. For example, the Obama administration looked the other way on all federal marijuana laws in favor of letting states who voted to legalize it govern themselves. However, this Trump episode is very different, as others almost always come in the form of the executive not enforcing outdated laws which conflict with either our higher standards of modernity or new laws. This sanctions bill was passed almost unanimously by the legislature and signed into law by the executive only six months ago, and now the executive refuses to enforce the law.
If you're wondering to yourself: how does the Trump administration think they can get away with this? Well, let me direct you to the New York Times front page this morning. There is zero mention of the president refusing to enforce a bill he signed into law. But you know what is at the top of their front page? Interviews with white supremacists. The NYT has completely veered off the path of self-parody, and the most logical explanation for their obsession with profiling every Trump voter in America is that they are taking their existing subscribers for granted while trying to eat into Breitbart's market share.
If the Times is counting on folks like me continuing to subscribe thanks to many of their terrific journalists like Rukmini Callimachi or Michael Schmidt, well, they shouldn’t. I’m canceling my subscription today, as this was the last straw. There is still plenty to be decided on the Russian sanctions issue, and there isn’t a whole lot to report other than the Trump administration did not meet yet another deadline set by these Russian sanctions. The last time they missed a deadline, they did eventually come around to meeting their responsibilities a few weeks later, so it’s entirely possible that this crisis will be resolved next month.
However, this is an honest to goodness constitutional crisis right now. There is no enforcement mechanism to force the executive branch to enforce laws. Our entire system is based on that premise, and if they leave their post, then the whole system falls apart. The mere possibility of that is far bigger news than “Supporters Fear Trump’s Speech Will Lack the Edge They Love.” But alas, the Times is fully committed to giving a voice to every white supremacist in America, even if they have to bury real news to do it. The Times did cover this major sanctions story, so its positioning on their homepage—or lack thereof—is an indictment of the executives running the show, not the reporters covering the beat. Too much anger at the NYT is directed at their journalists. Most of them do great work. Blame their bosses for functionally turning the Gray Lady into a Nazi sympathizer.
This isn’t a partisan issue. The Russians attacked our elections, and as of right now, the Trump administration is refusing to enforce the punishment agreed upon by two of our three branches last August. Republican Senator Susan Collins told CNN’s New Day that “the one thing we know for sure already is the Russians did attempt to meddle in our election. And not only should there be a price to pay in terms of sanctions, but also we need to put safeguards in place right now for the elections for this year.”
The list of Russian oligarchs released by the State Department has received far more mainstream coverage than the Trump administration’s insistence that the sanctions they signed into law are not needed. This is what happens when you have a media more focused on spectacle than reality, and pretty much every mainstream outlet except for The Washington Post has ignored our budding constitutional crisis on their front pages in favor of covering the list of Russian oligarchs—effectively running interference for the Trump administration. Making outlets like the Times look even worse, John Hudson of BuzzFeed got the Trump administration to admit that this list which has animated mainstream media was derived from Forbes’ 2017 list of the 200 richest businessmen in Russia. This is a truly embarrassing day for America’s major media centers.
Not to mention, the list doesn’t do much more than shame rich folks and make them fearful of future sanctions, as former Treasury Department sanctions adviser Adam Smith told WaPo:
“The weird part of this is, while the relationship is bad between Moscow and Washington, it’s worse between the White House and Congress. Congress took action arguably against the White House desires. It’s not clear how meaningful the list is, given the executive branch manages foreign policy.”
To recap: the Trump administration was supposed to both release the list of oligarchs subject to sanctions and sanction those who do business with firms connected to Russian arms dealers and their intelligence community. They produced the former, but not the latter, which renders the former fairly useless. If the entire point of releasing the list of bad Kremlin actors is to make them fearful of future sanctions, yet the president will not enforce current sanctions, it’s not really a threat. It’s a half-measure designed to make it look like the administration is doing something while relinquishing their primary responsibility, and our mainstream media is taking the bait. The Trump administration did come out today and promise sanctions “in the near future,” but given that they have missed two out of two deadlines so far, these words ring hollow. We have officially entered a harrowing new chapter in the degradation of America, and much of our mainstream media is asleep at the wheel. If an honest to goodness constitutional crisis doesn’t seriously raise alarm bells, then we can officially call America what it functionally is these days: a banana republic.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.