What is a bewildered citizen to make of the sanctions that President Obama levied on Russian officials and the Russian government on Thursday? The confusion starts with the news coverage. The Associated Press, for example, blares that “President Barack Obama has slapped harsh sanctions on the Russian intelligence services.” Meanwhile the former head of the CIA’s Russia operations tells The New York Times, “I think these sanctions are pretty weak. It’s more perhaps symbolic.” Some sloppy reports even suggested, wrongly, that Russian agents had interfered with vote counts or voting machines.
Trying to follow partisan cues won’t help either, as—in what is emerging as a hallmark of the Donald Trump era—the traditional alliances on foreign policy within and between the parties are scrambled and broken. Across party lines, various voices seem unable to decide whether to blame Russia for hacking that intelligence officials say was intended to interfere with the 2016 election, likely to aid Trump, nor on how to react appropriately to that hacking.
The president-elect himself issued a nebulous statement Thursday afternoon, which was evidently a response to Obama’s sanctions, though he did not make any explicit connection. “It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things,” Trump said. “Nevertheless, in the interest of our country and its great people, I will meet with leaders of the intelligence community next week in order to be updated on the facts of this situation.”