AP fact check: Where are Trump's ‘tougher' steps on Russia?

AP fact check: Where are Trump's ‘tougher' steps on Russia?
Posted at 10:12 PM, Feb 20, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-20 22:12:58-05

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Donald Trump says he's been "much tougher" on Russia than his predecessor -- but his evidence remains scant at best.

During the 2016 campaign, President Barack Obama called out Russia for political interference when much less was known about it and followed up after the election by expelling 35 Russian diplomats suspected of being intelligence officers. Obama also seized two Russian "dachas" or country estates, in Maryland and New York, that the State Department said were used for intelligence activities.

In contrast, the Trump administration, despite now-pervasive evidence of Russian interference, has held out the threat of sanctions, but not acted on it, while the president has equivocated since the 2016 campaign on whether he believes Moscow meddled at all.

A look at his claim and the facts behind it:

Trump: "I have been much tougher on Russia than Obama, just look at the facts. Total Fake News!" -- Trump's tweet on Tuesday.

The facts: The Trump administration actually lags the Obama administration on this front, by all public evidence.

It has not yet penalized any Russian officials for interfering in the 2016 election, arguing the threat of sanctions has been enough of a deterrent. Meanwhile, Trump's own officials warn that Russia is already acting to subvert this year's U.S. midterm elections after having judged its efforts in 2016 a success.

Under a mandate and deadline from Congress, the administration in late January released a public report listing Russians who have gained wealth or power under President Vladimir Putin -- 114 politicians and 96 "oligarchs" in all. The list was drawn from Forbes magazine's Russian billionaires' rankings, but the Treasury Department said it sent Congress a classified version with additional names. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the report would lead to new sanctions against Russia, but none has been issued.

A week ago, Trump's national intelligence director, Dan Coats, told senators Russia took "sophisticated advantage of social media" in the 2016 campaign and interfered broadly, in "pervasive" fashion. That conclusion was followed by special counsel Robert Mueller's indictment against 13 Russians and three Russian companies accused of plotting to meddle in that election, ultimately aiming to benefit Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

But Trump has not responded to that with "tough" words against Russia, lashing out instead against Democrats, other critics and his FBI. Trump has not forcefully asserted that Russia meddled in the 2016 election, famously suggesting that interference could have come from Russia, China, another country or "somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds."

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday that Trump has been "extremely tough on Russia," pointing to a boost in U.S. military spending, energy exports to eastern Europe, Trump's upholding of Obama-era sanctions against Russia and the U.S. decision to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons, including anti-tank missiles.

In August, the State Department retaliated against Russia's expulsion of U.S. diplomats by ordering Russia to shutter three diplomatic posts in San Francisco, Washington and New York City.

In December, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on five Russians under a U.S. human rights law that has been a major irritant between Washington and Moscow. On Tuesday, the State Department said Russian interference in the election was part of the reason for those steps.

Obama has indeed been criticized for not doing more to protect the electoral system, even by fellow Democrats, but if his steps were insufficient, they do not illustrate complacency.

A month before the election, his administration publicly accused the Russians of being behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and other officials, then carried out the expulsions and property seizures after the election. While not identifying Putin as the culprit, Obama officials said only Russia's senior-most officials could have authorized the election-related activities.