By Brian Bennett and Chris Megerian
The Trump administration on Thursday announced sanctions against 19 Russian individuals and five organizations for meddling in the 2016 election and for other "destructive cyber-attacks" still targeting the U.S. electrical grid and water systems.
While the sanctions were the strongest against Russia to date by this administration, President Trump declined to personally criticize Russia directly for its attacks against the country, or even mention the sanctions, when he briefly met with reporters after the Treasury Department's announcement.
He simply acknowledged, only when asked by reporters, that he agreed with British Prime Minister Theresa May that Russia was culpable for a separate nerve-agent attack March 4 in Salisbury, England, that targeted a Russian-born double agent and his adult daughter and injured other British citizens.
"It certainly looks like the Russians were behind it -- something that should never, ever happen," Trump said, adding, "We're taking it very seriously."
The poisoning in Salisbury was "a very sad situation," the president added, as he sat down to meet with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar.
The president's comment was far less condemnatory on the poisonings than a separate statement that his administration issued on Thursday with Britain, France and Germany. That joint statement called Russia's use of the military-grade nerve agent a "clear violation" of international law and said that Moscow's failure to respond to Britain's charge "further underlines Russia's responsibility."
"Our concerns are also heightened against the background of a pattern of earlier irresponsible Russian behavior," the four nations said, presumably in reference to Russian aggression against Ukraine and in Syria, its annexation of Crimea and its past attacks on other Russian expatriates in foreign nations.
Trump has not criticized Russia for its election meddling, which included spreading fake news stories and hacking the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign chief, according to the U.S. intelligence community. He has, however, repeatedly criticized the federal investigation of that interference, and possible Trump campaign involvement, as a "witch hunt."
Yet the new Treasury sanctions echo indictments in that inquiry. They include measures against 13 individuals and three entities, including the Internet Research Agency, that have been charged as part of the ongoing Russia investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
The sanctions also target six other individuals and two entities that are described as "cyber actors" operating on behalf of the Russian government.
Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said the new sanctions are part of a broad effort to address "ongoing nefarious attacks" by President Vladimir Putin's government.
"The Administration is confronting and countering malign Russian cyber activity, including their attempted interference in U.S. elections, destructive cyber-attacks, and intrusions targeting critical infrastructure," Mnuchin said in a statement.
A national security official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe intelligence matters, that Russian military hackers were behind both the destructive "NotPetya" malware attack last year that did billions of dollars in damage across Europe and the United States -- disrupting shipping, banking and medicine production -- and attempts to infiltrate U.S. electrical grids, nuclear facilities, aviation and water services that are "long-term and still ongoing."
The United States and Britain last month jointly blamed Russia for the NotPetya attack, which the Treasury Department on Thursday called "the most destructive and costly cyber-attack in history."
One of the most prominent individuals sanctioned was Yevgeniy Prigozhin, founder of the Internet Research Agency, the sanctioned entity based in St. Petersburg, Russia. He is a close associate of Putin known in Russia as "Putin's chef" because of his lucrative government catering contracts.
According to Mueller's indictment, the Internet Research Agency created fake social media accounts to sow discord during the 2016 presidential campaign, orchestrated pro-Trump rallies from afar and hired actors to dress as Hillary Clinton in cages at demonstrations, among other provocations.
Many of the new sanctions were issued to comply with a bipartisan law passed by Congress last summer that required the Trump administration to add sanctions to those imposed by the Obama administration in late 2016. Trump signed the law reluctantly, with a statement that he believed the legislation was "seriously flawed," and his administration is months late in meeting the law's deadline for action.
In Congress, lawmakers of both parties endorsed the sanctions, though Democrats and some Republicans complained that the administration's actions were tardy and should go further.
"Vladimir Putin is trying to put the West on the defensive, and he doesn't much care whether he puts innocent lives at risk," Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas who speaks regularly to Trump, said in a statement praising the sanctions. He called for more steps against Russia's "reckless" actions.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, another Republican who is friendly with Trump but has criticized the president's friendliness toward Putin, said of Putin, "His aim is to disrupt every aspect of our lives -- right down to having the ability to shut off the power in Americans' homes or businesses."
Typical of Democrats' reactions was a statement from Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who said the new sanctions are "long overdue" and "just a first step."
"Unless we impose a real price, Russia will continue to try to undermine our democracy and threaten our critical infrastructure," Brown said in a statement.
Mnuchin, in the Treasury announcement, suggested additional sanctions are coming -- "to hold Russian government officials and oligarchs accountable for their destabilizing activities by severing their access to the U.S. financial system."
Some lawmakers have called on the Trump administration to press the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to respond collectively to Russia's use of a military-grade nerve agent. Republican Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and John McCain of Arizona, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to Trump's national security advisors urging them to press NATO countries to expel some Russian diplomats, as Britain did on Wednesday, and freeze more Russian assets.
The United States has not taken such action unilaterally, though on Wednesday the White House endorsed Britain's expulsions.
The administration's sanctions come three days after Republicans in control of the House Intelligence Committee announced that they were closing the panel's investigation into Russian meddling and that they had found no evidence of collusion between Trump's campaign and Russians. Democrats disputed that conclusion and complained the panel's work was incomplete.
Although Trump has been reluctant to blame Russia for election meddling, he has suggested that the government would take steps to prevent interference in the upcoming midterm election. "Whatever they do, we'll counteract it very strongly," he said during a March 6 news conference.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders demurred on Thursday when asked at her briefing whether Putin is a friend or foe of the United States. She said Russia will have to decide whether "to be a good actor or a bad actor," adding, "We're going to be tough on Russia until they decide to change their behavior."
Top intelligence officials have said Russian political interference remains an ongoing problem as the midterm election approaches, with control of Congress at stake.
In repeated hearings on Capitol Hill, the president's top national security advisors have testified that Moscow is poised to use similar tactics. They have also told Congress that the president has not directed them to take any action in response.
"I believe that President Putin has clearly come to the conclusion that 'there's little price to pay here and therefore I can continue this activity,'" Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the outgoing director of the National Security Agency and leader of the U.S. Cyber Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee this month.
During a confirmation hearing Thursday, Trump's nominee to replace Rogers, Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone, echoed those concerns. "Unless the calculus changes, we should expect continued issues," he told the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Times staff writer Cathleen Decker contributed to this report.
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