With just three weeks remaining before he vacates the Oval Office, President Barack Obama on Thursday hit Russia with a series of retaliatory measures for its alleged efforts to interfere in the 2016 election, expelling dozens of U.S.-based Russian intelligence operatives and issuing sanctions against two Russian intelligence services that were allegedly involved in the high-profile cyber-attacks on the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign earlier this year.
“Russia's cyberactivities were intended to influence the election, erode faith in U.S. democratic institutions, sow doubt about the integrity of our electoral process, and undermine confidence in the institutions of the U.S. government,” the White House said in its announcement, the strongest response yet by the Obama administration to state-sponsored hacking. “These actions are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.” According to the White House and the Treasury Department, the administration has imposed sanctions on two Russian intelligence agencies—the F.S.B. and the G.R.U.—four G.R.U. officers, three companies that provided support for the hacks, and two Russian individuals, CNN reports. A total of 35 Russian intelligence operatives and their families were given 72 hours to leave the country.
“These actions follow repeated private and public warnings that we have issued to the Russian government, and are a necessary and appropriate response to efforts to harm U.S. interests in violation of established international norms of behavior,” Obama said in the statement. A separate declassified report published Thursday by the Department of Homeland Security and F.B.I. reveals a number of specifics about Russian intelligence operations in the U.S., including technical details designed to help the private sector prevent further incursions.
The president also suggested that further retaliation will likely take place outside of the public eye. “These actions are not the sum total of our response to Russia’s aggressive activities,” Obama added. “We will continue to take a variety of actions at a time and place of our choosing, some of which will not be publicized.” A spokesperson for Russian president Vladimir Putin quickly responded that the Kremlin will consider its own retaliatory measures.
After several hours of silence, Donald Trump responded later Thursday with a short, two sentence statement that made no mention of Russia. “It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things. Nevertheless, in the interest of our country and its great people, I will meet with members of the intelligence community next week in order to be updated on the facts of the situation.” (Trump has already received classified briefings on Russia’s role, but has cast doubt on the information he was provided, castigating the C.I.A. as incompetent. “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” his transition office said in a short, unsigned statement earlier this month.)
The Russian government has repeatedly denied any involvement in the cyber-attacks against the D.N.C. and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, which resulted in the publication of thousands of pages of stolen documents, embarrassing the Democratic Party and leading to relentlessly negative press for Hillary Clinton in the weeks leading up to the election. The White House had previously accused Russia of directing the attacks, but until Thursday had released few details. “Frankly speaking, we are tired of lies about Russian hackers that continue to be spread in the United States from the very top,” Maria Zakharova, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said in a statement on Wednesday, Politico reports. Putin, whom the Obama administration has alleged personally oversaw the espionage operation, also denied any involvement in an interview with Bloomberg in September, although he did suggest that whoever was behind them did the country a public service. “Listen, does it even matter who hacked this data?” the Russian president said. “The important thing is that the content was given to the public.”
Obama’s much-anticipated response to the hacks comes amid heightened tensions between the incoming and outgoing administrations. Donald Trump has routinely dismissed the reports that Putin and the Russian government influenced the election, characterizing the claims as “ridiculous” and “just another excuse” for Clinton and her allies. “I think we ought to get on with our lives,” Trump argued Wednesday during an impromptu press conference at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida. “I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly,” he later added, appearing to wave away the allegations against Russia. “The whole age of the computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what’s going on.”
While Trump has promised to improve relations with Moscow, the new set of sanctions imposed by the Obama administration could also impose significant political costs on Trump if he attempts to unwind them once he assumes the presidency. A number of Republican senators—including Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio and John McCain—have called for investigations into Russian meddling in the U.S. election, despite Trump’s objections, and have also indicated that they might break with the G.O.P. over Trump’s nomination of ExxonMobil C.E.O. Rex Tillerson, who has extensive ties to Russia, to lead the State Department. McCain and Graham have both called for retaliatory measures against Russia over the alleged election hacking. Even Paul Ryan, an ambivalent Trump critic, backed the president’s decision on Thursday to issue sanctions against Moscow, which he argued has “consistently sought to undermine” American interests. “While today’s action by the administration is overdue, it is an appropriate way to end eight years of failed policy with Russia," the speaker of the House wrote in a statement. “And it serves as a prime example of this administration's ineffective foreign policy that has left America weaker in the eyes of the world.”
Ryan’s position puts Trump in a tough spot politically. If G.O.P. leadership breaks with the president-elect over Russia, his plan to thaw relations with Putin and push a decidedly pro-Russian foreign policy platform through Congress becomes a whole lot more difficult. As Obama said in a press conference last week, “Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave” if he knew how in the Grand Old Party had warmed up to the former K.G.B. agent. How Trump and the rest of the Republican Party respond next will be revealing.
This story has been updated.