A White House official who said America had to “move on” from Russia’s 2016 election interference and suggested that the United States ready to reverse actions taken to rebuke that meddling triggered a warning from the Kremlin that it would reject any preconditions for the return of Russian diplomatic property seized by the United States.
The warning came in response to comments made by an adviser to President Donald Trump, Sebastian Gorka, who linked the rollback of sanctions to Russia’s adherence to a deal to cease-fire in Syria.
Diplomatic compounds in New York and Maryland were closed by then-President Barack Obama as punishment for Russian efforts to sway the 2016 election after intelligence agencies determined that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered the influence campaign to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process.”
In October, Obama directly warned Putin to stop interfering or face “serious consequences” but on December 29, 2016, the day the US announced it was expelling 35 diplomats suspected as spies and imposing other penalties in retaliation for the intrusion, retired Army Gen. Michael Flynn discussed the sanctions with Russian ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak.
Flynn was forced to resign as National Security Advisor after just 24 days in the job, when it was revealed that he lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his conversation and American Intelligence intercepted a phone call by Russian officials who claimed they could use Flynn to influence Trump.
Flynn may have violated the Logan Act, which prohibits Americans from negotiating with foreign governments about disputes with the United States. Putin did not immediately retaliate over the expulsions and property seizure, saying he would wait to see what the Trump administration would do.
Since then, the new administration has been mired in questions about whether there was collusion with Russia during the campaign, illegal back channel deals aimed at undermining Obama’s policy, action aimed at repaying foreign entities that aided Trump’s political ambition, efforts to cover up crimes or acts that constitute obstruction of justice by hindering federal investigations, even if no laws were broken.
On May 9, 2017, Trump dismissed FBI Director James Comey to diminish ongoing suspicions of his presidency because of “this Russia thing” but a week later, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as Special Counsel to oversee the investigation.
By withdrawing from a climate change agreement and impulsive comments putting the NATO alliance in question, Trump has abdicated America’s world leadership, strengthening Russia’s position.
Also, Russia has begun to deploy new ground-launched cruise missiles, in violation of the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the Trump Administration has not responded.
NATO leaders who believe that Russia presents the greatest challenge to the security of the alliance want Trump to acknowledge that the US remains committed to the unconditional guarantee that all NATO countries will come to the aid of a member state that faces an armed attack.
If the United States returns Russian compounds in New York and Maryland closed as punishment for covert election meddling, the retreat would be viewed as a sign of further Trump’s weakness but Moscow warned that it may take retaliatory measures unless Washington does something to break the stalemate.
A Russian Foreign Ministry official stated that it is hard to cooperate with the US in the light of diplomats’ repatriation and confiscated property, which was under diplomatic immunity before its seizure by the Obama administration.
“The seized objects have not been returned. Washington has not only failed to cancel the decision to expel our employees, but also refuses to issue visas to those who are to replace them,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said after Gorka floated idea of returning the compounds as ‘acts of good faith’ with the Kremlin.
“Return of the diplomatic property to Russia must not depend on any conditions,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “This totally contradicts international law.”
Peskov said the Kremlin is running out of patience and will retaliate by expelling U.S. diplomats and seizing American property in Russia unless an agreement to return the seized compounds comes out of high-level talks due to resume on July 17.
Gorka on Thursday appeared to acknowledge that the Trump administration is weighing returning seized compounds in the U.S. to Russia.
A former Obama administration adviser told the Washington Post they had “no intention” of ever giving the compounds back to Russia and a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) have expressed disapproval of the proposition.
“These properties were seized because 17 U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed that Russia used covert cyberattacks, espionage, and harmful propaganda to try and undermine our democracy, in addition to the fact that U.S. diplomats in Russia faced repeated harassment from Russian security services,” the senators wrote in a letter to Trump. “We need to stand strong and stand united so that Russia and other nations know that this aggression will not go unchecked.”
Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper also denounced the notion of returning the compounds last week.
“Those compounds, particularly the one in Maryland, was a major intelligence operation, collecting intelligence against us. And so I don’t see what the Russians have done that would merit a return,” Clapper told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell.
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