Politics & Government

Will Trump keep sanctions against Russia? Overturning them won’t be easy

President-elect Donald Trump, criticized for his friendly relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, faces major obstacles if he tries to lift sanctions newly imposed on Russia for election hacking.

Politically, lawmakers of both parties, including Republican leaders, immediately began pressuring him to keep intact the penalties that President Barack Obama rushed into place Thursday following months of foreign hacking.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said he looked forward to working with the incoming administration to ensure “that — in the future — our response to such aggression is timely, decisive, and forceful enough to convince our adversaries not to do it again.”

“I hope the incoming Trump administration, which has been far too close to Russia throughout the campaign and transition, won’t think for one second about weakening these new sanctions or our existing regime,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, incoming Senate Democratic leader.

The International Emergency Economic Powers Act requires Trump’s treasury secretary to certify that the Russians have stopped hacking in order to lift the sanctions. His nominee, Steven Mnuchin, a film producer, banker and investor, faces challenging confirmation hearings and then would have to overcome substantive hurdles if he tried to lift the sanctions.

“He can get rid of it, but it’s very difficult,” said James Lewis, who worked at the State and Commerce departments and now serves as senior vice president and program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he studies technology and security. “They have done it in a way that’s hard to undo.”

In response to the sanctions, Trump said Thursday that “it’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things.” He also said he would meet with intelligence leaders next week for updates on the situation.

On Thursday, the Obama administration imposed sanctions against Russian intelligence services and their top officials, expelled 35 Russian officials and closed a pair of Russian-owned compounds that served as retreats in the United States.

It’s the strongest action the Obama administration has taken in response to any hacking. The FBI and CIA have said that Russian-connected hackers sought to interfere in the presidential election between Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.

In October, the government accused Russia of hacking emails and documents from the Democratic National Committee. Those emails later turned up on WikiLeaks, the group dedicated to releasing secret documents. The contents of the DNC emails led to the resignation of the DNC chairwoman, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida.

A 13-page investigative report released Thursday explaining the hacks suggests, however, that the Democratic National Committee wasn’t the Russians’ only target. According to the report, in the summer of 2015, the hackers sent a malicious link to more than 1,000 U.S. organizations. “In the course of that campaign,” the report said, the hackers “successfully compromised a U.S. political party.”

Thursday’s report also makes no mention of WikiLeaks, despite earlier reports that the U.S. had identified Russian-connected individuals who gave documents to WikiLeaks.

Hackers are also believed to have tried to penetrate election systems in Arizona and Illinois, though there is no further mention of that in the Thursday report. The actual impact of the hacking in swaying the election outcome isn’t clear.

Obama’s move was his latest attempt to enact policies to outlast his presidency. Trump takes over on Jan. 20.

In recent weeks, Obama has appointed dozens of people to boards, commissions and offices, pardoned or reduced the prison sentences of hundreds of federal inmates and issued numerous executive actions, including blocking the sale of new offshore drilling rights in parts of the Arctic and Atlantic.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the sanctions were designed to undermine Trump.

“We think that such steps by a U.S. administration that has three weeks left to work are aimed at two things: to further harm Russian-American ties, which are at a low point as it is, as well as, obviously, to deal a blow to the foreign policy plans of the incoming administration of the president-elect,” he said.

A senior administration official acknowledged that Trump could undo the sanctions, but argued that it “wouldn’t make a lot of sense.”

The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly as a matter of practice, said the evidence shows a pattern of Russia intervention in the U.S. political system as well as harassment of U.S. diplomats.

“This should be of concern to all Americans,” the official said, adding that “there is no reason to believe that Russia’s activities will cease.”

Trump said at a July press conference that he’d consider lifting the sanctions imposed against Russia for its annexation of Crimea, along with suggesting that he’d be open to recognizing Crimea as Russian territory. He told reporters at the press conference he “would be looking into that.”

“President-elect Trump has given some indications that his administration might consider lifting the sanctions aimed specifically at Russia for its interference in the Crimean region of the Ukraine,” said Lawrence Ward, a partner at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney who focuses on U.S. national security law, international trade compliance law and licensing. “Optically, it may be more difficult for the new administration to lift these sanctions.”

Anita Kumar: 202-383-6017, @anitakumar01

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark