MOSCOW — The Trump administration managed the unusual feat this week of outraging both Russia’s leaders in Moscow and Russia’s biggest critics in Washington with its handling of a new sanctions law intended to punish the Kremlin for interference in the 2016 US elections.
The State Department angered members of Congress by announcing Monday that it did not plan to impose new sanctions called for in a measure that President Trump reluctantly signed into law last year. And the Treasury Department angered Moscow later in the day with a new name-and-shame list identifying 210 senior Russian political and business figures.
The twin announcements left a muddled impression of how Trump plans to approach the Kremlin in his second year in office even as investigators search for evidence of collaboration between his campaign and Russian agents. His domestic opponents complained that once again Trump seemed to be in thrall to Russia, while the Kremlin complained that he was a captive of what it described as the American deep state.
“This is definitely an unfriendly act,” President Vladimir Putin said when asked about the Treasury Department list during a campaign event in advance of Russia’s own presidential election in March. “It is complicating Russian-American relations, where the situation is already hard, and is definitely harming international relations in general.”
Putin said Moscow had pondered virtually breaking ties with Washington over what is known in Russia as the “Kremlin report,” but decided against it. “We were prepared to undertake retaliatory steps, and quite serious ones too, which would cut our relations to zero,” he said. “But we will refrain from such steps for the time being.”
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers criticized Trump for not imposing additional sanctions on Russia as envisioned in the legislation passed over his objections by veto-proof bipartisan majorities in both houses last August.
“It is a grave breach of President Trump’s responsibilities to reward President Putin by inaction for his intervention in an American election — it represents nothing less than appeasement for an attack on our country’s democracy,” said Representative Adam Smith of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. “It is time for us to stand up for our country. We cannot let these actions to continue to go unpunished.”
Under the new law, Trump faced two deadlines Monday. The law required him to impose sanctions on large purchasers of Russian military equipment but granted exceptions. The State Department cited those exceptions in announcing that it would not take new punitive actions, arguing that the law itself was already deterring such purchases.
The law also required him to produce a list of “senior political figures and oligarchs” in Russia. No actions were to be taken against those identified on the list, but it was seen as a way of sending a signal to those close to Putin that they had much to lose if Moscow does not pull back from its intervention in Ukraine and its interference in Western elections.
Responding to criticism, the Trump administration insisted Tuesday that it was not finished taking action under the new legislation. Grilled by Democrats during a congressional hearing, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin rejected suggestions that the administration was delaying action on Russia.
“I don’t think in any way we’re slow-walking the report that we delivered last night,” he said at a Senate Banking Committee hearing on financial stability.
Mnuchin insisted that the legislation required only that his department produce a report by Monday, and that additional action would be taken. “There will be sanctions out of this report,” he said.
The Treasury list, released just before midnight in Washington, included almost the entire roster of senior Russian government officials as well as 96 billionaires. The document said that inclusion on the list did not mean involvement in “malign activities.” The list has a long, complicated title that included a numerical reference to the section of the law requiring its publication.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, called the list an “enemies list” and said the report could unfairly tar those on it. “The fact that this list was made public can potentially do damage to the image and reputation of our enterprises, businessmen, politicians and officials,” he told reporters.
“De facto everyone is called the enemy of the United States,” Peskov said. “If you read the text and the title of this document, all this is done in accordance with the law on countering the enemies of the United States.”
Government figures on the list include more than 40 of Putin’s closest advisers; all 30 members of the Cabinet of Ministers, including Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev; the heads of many important state agencies and state-run companies; and other key political figures.
Perhaps the most prominent government official not on the list was the central bank governor, Elvira Nabiullina. At least 22 people on the list had already been placed under US sanctions by the administration of President Barack Obama, which said they had played key roles in fueling the Ukraine crisis.
The list was met with a combination of disbelief and derision in Russia, with mocking comments ricocheting around social media. Some joked that it had taken the Trump administration six months to photocopy the Forbes list of Russian billionaires, since they were all included, as well as the link detailing senior officials on the Kremlin website. Treasury officials confirmed that they did rely on Forbes, among other publicly available sources.