Now we're even?
President Joe Biden said Thursday he had told Vladimir Putin when they spoke two days earlier that he was going to settle the score for Russia's election interference and massive cyberattack on U.S. government agencies and private companies.
"We cannot allow a foreign power to interfere in our democratic process with impunity," Biden said in a speech at the White House.
Biden announced what he called "proportionate" sanctions against Russian entities and individuals and the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats. Other American measures are expected as well, though the administration is not likely to announce them, The Associated Press reported. "I was clear with President Putin that we could have gone further," Biden said.
Biden said "now is the time to de-escalate" tensions with Russia in pursuit of "a stable, predictable relationship." But Moscow in its public response was not prepared to call it even. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warning that "a series of retaliatory measures will come in the nearest time."
The sanctions Biden chose are more than symbolic. His order makes it more difficult for Russia to borrow money by barring U.S. banks from buying Russian bonds directly from the Russian Central Bank, Russian National Wealth Fund and Finance Ministry. It could complicate Russian efforts to raise capital and give companies across the globe pause about doing business in Russia.
The impact of the sanctions and the U.S. willingness to impose costs will be weighed by Putin as he evaluates his next steps. Biden said he also invited Putin to a potential summit this summer in Europe, a possibility their teams are currently discussing.
The rap sheet on Russia
Biden's announcement was coupled with new U.S. conclusions from investigations into malign Russian activity against the United States.
The U.S. for the first time formally blamed Russian intelligence for last year's SolarWinds cyberattack. Hackers infected third-party computer software widely used by government and private networks in the U.S., including the Treasury, Energy and Homeland Security departments. U.S. officials, who are still calculating the damage done and how to counteract it, alleged the assault was part of an intelligence-gathering mission to amass U.S. secrets for the Russian government.
U.S. officials said Putin ordered cyber and disinformation campaigns to help former President Donald Trump in his failed bid for reelection, and they added a new detail to the story of the Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. It was previously known that Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort then handed sensitive internal polling data and campaign strategy to Konstantin Kilimnik, an associate known to have had ties to Russian intelligence. Now the Treasury Department explicitly says that Kilimnik passed on that information to Russian intelligence agencies amid the interference schemes.
One allegation that emerged last year that is not part of Biden's rationale for retaliation is reports of Russia offering bounties to Taliban-linked militants in Afghanistan for killing U.S. troops. The Biden administration said it had "low to moderate confidence" in the accuracy of the stories. "We still feel there are questions to be answered by the Russian government," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
Psaki also sidestepped a question about whether Biden regretted attacking Trump on the campaign trail for not doing anything about the reported bounties.
Janison: GOP 'hoax' nonsense springs eternal
New information keeps shattering the GOP's repeated denials of established fact. But that doesn’t mean Republicans on the national stage are ready to give up spurious assertions about who cheats and tries to tamper with elections, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.
In a House Intelligence Committee hearing Thursday on global threats, Rep. Devin Nunes steered questioning toward die-hard Trumpist narratives involving the origins of the investigation of Russians' meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign. Nunes accused the FBI of spying on Republicans, a "hallmark of a banana republic."
At the same time, the GOP's old "no-collusion-with-Russia" contention took another blow with the official account of Manafort's sharing of Trump campaign information with Kilimnik, who fulfilled his role relaying the data to Moscow's intelligence services.
"Kilimnik sought to promote the narrative that Ukraine, not Russia, had interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election," the Treasury Department said. Among Trump's allies who ran with that disinformation was his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who promised substantiation but never delivered.
And so it went with Trump's false assertions of ballot fraud before and after the 2020 election. Georgia's Republican lieutenant governor said last week that Giuliani's lies about the state's election process led to the state's new voting laws.
Not the leaders of the pack
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday rejected a push from the left wing of her party to swiftly vote on legislation to use the Democratic majorities in Congress to expand the Supreme Court.
"I have no intention to bring it to the floor," Pelosi said of the legislation — led by House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler (D-Manhattan) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) — which would expand the number of Supreme Court justices to 13 from nine.
While she said an expansion is "not out of the question" in the long run, she backed Biden’s recent move to create a commission to study such issues. "I don’t know that that’s a good idea or a bad idea," Pelosi said. "I think it’s an idea that should be considered."
Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) also told reporters Thursday that he’s "not ready to sign on yet" to a court-expansion push, and he hasn’t decided whether to bring the bill up for a committee vote. Durbin said he wants to first hear recommendations from the commission, which has six months to report back.
Members of Congress from both parties on Thursday launched a "bipartisan SALT coalition" aimed at stoking public support for restoring the full federal deduction of state and local taxes, which would benefit many property owners on Long Island and in high-tax areas nationwide, reports Newsday's Scott Eidler.
Some Democrats, including Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), said they would not support Biden's infrastructure bill unless it fully restored the SALT deduction.
The SALT deduction was limited to $10,000 in 2017 when Trump signed into law a $1.5 trillion, Republican-authored overhaul of the federal tax code. The effort to repeal the limit emphasized the outsized effect of the 2017 law on middle-class property owners throughout the country.
Outside the U.S. Capitol, Republican and Democratic members of Congress from New York, New Jersey and California — states where property taxes are among the highest in the nation — expressed support for the proposal. Rep. Andrew Garbarino (R-Bayport) said the issue affects middle-class taxpayers including teachers, firefighters, cops and small-business owners.
Fauci calls a foul
Dr. Anthony Fauci has built a reputation for being calm, even-tempered and low-key as a face of the government response to the pandemic, but sitting in a witness seat at a House hearing while Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) berated him over assaults on Americans' "liberties" pushed him to his limit.
"We’re not talking about liberties. We’re talking about a pandemic that has killed 560,000 Americans," said Fauci.
"Are we going to be here two years from now wearing masks?" Jordan shouted. "You’re ranting again," Fauci responded softly. "I'm not ranting," Jordan protested.
"Yes, you are," Fauci repeated. "I think you're making this a personal thing, and it isn't," said the infectious-disease expert, growing more indignant. (See video from the exchange.)
At another point, Jordan became so antagonistic that Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) snapped at him because he continued speaking after the subcommittee's chairman, Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), told him his question time had expired and it was Waters' turn. Waters told Jordan: "You need to respect the chair and shut your mouth!" (Here's a video clip.)
More coronavirus news
See a roundup of the latest regional pandemic developments on Long Island and beyond by Newsday's Matthew Chayes and Rachelle Blidner. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.
What else is happening:
- Former Vice President Mike Pence underwent surgery at a hospital in Falls Church, Virginia, on Wednesday to implant a pacemaker after experiencing symptoms associated with a slow heart rate over the past two weeks, his office said. Pence, 61, is expected to fully recover and return to normal activity "in the coming days," a statement said.
- Polling for The New York Times shows broad popular support — 2 out of 3 Americans — for Biden's $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, the newspaper said. Republicans hope to turn some voters, particularly independents, against the plan by attacking Biden’s proposal to fund it in part with higher corporate tax rates.
- Biden pledged to halt construction of Trump's wall on the Mexican border, but his Justice Department just won a decision against a South Texas family that has been fighting the federal government from seizing 6½ acres of their land to erect a segment of barrier, The Washington Post reported.
- Biden so far is resisting signing off on a campaign pledge to raise the Trump-era cap on refugees from around the world because of political optics, CNN reported, citing sources among Democratic lawmakers and advocates. Psaki said Thursday that Biden remains committed to raising the refugee cap but still doesn't have a timeline.
- Robert Reich, a Clinton-era labor secretary, tells The Atlantic approvingly that Biden is doing well pushing a big-ticket agenda because he "is almost magical in his ability to make progressivism boring. He can say the same thing that Bernie Sanders has or AOC [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] has and say it in a way that causes your eyes to glaze over."