The New York Times reports: Throughout 2016, both Donald J. Trump and President Vladimir V. Putin complained that American-led sanctions against Russia were the biggest irritant in the plummeting relations between the two superpowers. And the current investigations, which have cast a shadow over Mr. Trump’s first six months in office, have focused on whether a series of contacts between Mr. Trump’s inner circle and Russians were partly about constructing deals to get those penalties lifted.
Now it is clear that those sanctions not only are staying in place, but are about to be modestly expanded — exactly the outcome the two presidents sought to avoid.
How that happened is a story of two global leaders overplaying their hands.
Mr. Putin is beginning to pay a price for what John O. Brennan, the former C.I.A. director, described last week as the Russian president’s fateful decision last summer to try to use stolen computer data to support Mr. Trump’s candidacy. For his part, Mr. Trump ignited the movement in Congress by repeatedly casting doubt on that intelligence finding, then fueled it by confirming revelation after revelation about previously denied contacts between his inner circle and a parade of Russians.
If approved by Congress this week, Mr. Trump has little choice, his aides acknowledge, but to sign the toughened sanctions legislation that he desperately wanted to see defeated.
Just days ago, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and other top officials were lobbying fiercely to preserve Mr. Trump’s right to waive Russia sanctions with a stroke of the pen — just as President Barack Obama was able to do when, in negotiations with Iran, he dangled the relaxation of sanctions to coax Tehran to agree to sharp, decade-long limits on its nuclear activity.
As one of Mr. Trump’s aides pointed out last week, there is a long history of granting presidents that negotiating leverage when dealing with foreign adversaries.
But by constantly casting doubt on intelligence that the Kremlin was behind an effort to manipulate last year’s presidential election, Mr. Trump so unnerved members of his own party that even they saw a need to curb his ability to lift those sanctions unilaterally.
On Sunday, Mr. Trump’s new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, repeated the White House position that Mr. Trump remains unconvinced by the evidence Russia was the culprit behind the election hacking. He said that when the subject comes up, Mr. Trump cannot separate the intelligence findings from his emotional sense that the issue is being used to cast doubt on his legitimacy as president.
“It actually in his mind, what are you guys suggesting?” Mr. Scaramucci said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “You’re going to delegitimize his victory?”
If so, Mr. Trump is the only one with access to the best intelligence on the issue who still harbors those doubts.
Last week at the Aspen Security Forum, four of his top intelligence and national security officials — including Mike Pompeo, the C.I.A. director — said they were absolutely convinced that the Russians were behind the effort to influence the election.
“There is no dissent,” Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, said on Friday at the Aspen conference. The Russians, he said, “caught us just a little bit asleep in terms of capabilities” the Kremlin could bring to bear to influence elections here, in France and Germany. The Russians’ goal was clear, he said: “They are trying to undermine Western democracy.” [Continue reading…]