Obama puts Trump on the spot with Russia sanctions

Story highlights

  • Frida Ghitis: Obama has imposed sanctions on Russia for meddling in US election; onus is now on Trump to enforce them
  • She says Trump's cavalier dismissal of Russia's upending of democracy, defense of Putin will anger his party, alarm Americans

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

(CNN)President Barack Obama, at long, long last, responded forcefully to Russia's unprecedented interference in America's democratic process. We can all wonder what might have happened if he had acted sooner, but that question no longer matters.

The question now is what President-elect Donald Trump will do when he takes office in less than a month.
After all, Trump's acquiescent attitude towards anything having to do with Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, is so baffling, so dismissive of American institutions and arguably of the country's interests, that it has become the most corrosive point of contention between Trump and members of his own party.
    On Thursday, Obama issued an executive order that, among other things, expels 35 Russian intelligence operatives and shuts down two Russian compounds in the US. The text of the executive order describes the strong sanctions as "steps to deal with the national emergency with respect to significant malicious cyber-enabled activities ... to undermine democratic processes and institutions."
    US security agencies have been in agreement that Russian-backed hackers deliberately stole emails from the Democratic National Committee and from Hillary Clinton's campaign chief John Podesta, then moved to have the private emails made public in an effort to help Trump, Putin's favored candidate, win the election.
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    Already in October, Washington formally blamed Russia for the attacks. Russia denied involvement, but US intelligence services said they were "confident" of Russia's role, confirming what private firms had already concluded.
    Obama, however, did not act, fearing he would be seen as trying to help his candidate, Hillary Clinton, win the election. His reticence may have changed the course of history. But that's spilled milk.
    The point is what happens now.
    Russia's actions are not about espionage. If Russia had collected the emails to gain intelligence it would be a different matter. What Russia did was weaponize that information and detonate it with calculated timing to alter the election.
    Democrats, Republicans and advocates of democracy around the world should view this as a supreme threat to their democratic system of government. The former acting CIA director Mike Morell was not exaggerating when he called Russia's actions an "existential threat to our way of life," and "the political equivalent of 9/11," even as the Trump team termed the charges "laughable."
    And so, Obama's new executive order not only lashes out at Russia, it does something more important: It places the onus on Trump.
    He will have to decide if he actively moves to reverse Obama's executive order despite the conclusions reached by US security services. That would infuriate many members of his own party.
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    Republican Senator Lindsay Graham said on Wednesday that "Russia is trying to break the back of democracies all around the world." John McCain, a fellow Republican, called Russian behavior unacceptable. They were speaking from Latvia, a country that lived under Moscow's domination until the fall of the Soviet Union and now fears a newly emboldened Russia, as do other independent countries that were once part of the USSR.
    But Trump's position when it comes to Russia has been steadfast. He gives Putin the benefit of the doubt, even at the expense of America's own intelligence services. He has dismissed the conclusions of US government experts, memorably suggesting that perhaps it was a 400-pound man on a couch who was responsible for the hacking.
    When asked this week about the Russian hacking controversy by reporters at his Mar-a-Lago home in Florida, Trump said, "I think we ought to get on with our lives."
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    The issue of a foreign power interfering with American democracy is hardly one to be cavalierly dismissed by the next president -- although it is in keeping with Trump's other head-spinning comments. These are his insights on the national security issue and Russia's involvement: "I think that computers have complicated our lives very greatly. The whole age of computer has made it where nobody known exactly what's going on."
    As it happens, we have a pretty good idea what's going on with Russia and its interference in Western democratic elections. Even Germany is now looking at the prospect of Russian meddling. It is Trump's attitude towards Putin where we still have a lot of questions.
    The issue of US relations with Russia, particularly in the aftermath of the election hacking, has the potential to bring Putin into direct confrontation with Republicans in Congress, some of whom were already calling for sanctions even before Obama acted.
    Obama has put Trump on the spot. Will he actively defend Putin, lifting the sanctions, despite US intelligence conclusions and the views of many in the Republican Party, or will he act as the president of the United States, a man responsible for preserving democracy and defending his own country against aggression from abroad?
    After all, we all remember Trump's immortal words, "No puppet, no puppet!" in denying the charge that he is beholden to Putin.