A little known and under-reported on memo may just be the latest major hint of a significant development in the Russia. The Presidential Memorandum, quietly issued on Friday amid fervid news coverage of the impending Florida landfall of Hurricane Irma, went practically unnoticed over the weekend but keen observers have noted its potentially massive implications.
The memo, authored by President Trump, officially delegates authority to administer financial sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to the Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
This delegation could be merely to insulate and shield Trump from the bad ‘optics’ of potential impropriety over having authority over Russian sanctions as his campaign is investigated over its own ties to Russia. However, this explanation seems unlikely given that the Trump White House was reportedly attempting to encourage members of the House in Congress to “defang” and gut recent Senate sanctions against Russia. A bill Trump was later begrudgingly forced to sign after Congressional approval.
It seems quite possible that this latest action is a potential signal of a much more explosive possibility: the Trump administration’s desire to remove the Magnitsky Act’s financial sanctions on Russia. By delegating authority, Trump preserves the ability to defend that he, himself did not make any decision regarding lifting of sanctions, shifting blame and media focus off himself.
This is particularly concerning given Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s questionable actions regarding Russia, including his encouragement of the formation of a partnership unit on cybersecurity. In a declassified report published in January by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Russia has been accused by the U.S. Intelligence Committee of engaging in cyber-espionage, hacking into the DNC and leaking damaging private emails in an attempt to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Mnuchin described the potential cybersecurity partnership with a foreign adversary as a “very important step forward.”
The repeal of the Magnitsky Act is considered a top foreign policy goal of Putin. The Magnitsky Act, which freezes certain Russian officials’ access to funds stashed in Western banks and real-estate, and bans their entry into the U.S., is more than merely a thorn in Putin’s side. Putin considers the act and ensuing coverage exposing corruption to have been a leading cause of the protests prior to the 2012 Russian election which threatened his grasp of control on the country.
Shaken by the close call, Putin took this vulnerable moment quite personally and decided to exact revenge on then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. The U.S. Intelligence Community considers this a prominent factor in why Putin decided to attempt to sabotage Clinton’s chances in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
What is the Magnitsky Act & Why Does Russia Care?:
The Magnitsky Act freezes certain Russian officials’ access to funds and they stashed in Western banks and real-estate, and bans their entry into the U.S. It is named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer and auditor who uncovered a massive web of fraud and corruption while working for a client, William Browder. Browder, a hedge fund manager, was once the largest foreign investor in Russia, until the Russian authorities kicked him out of the country and allegedly began pilfering his investment fund, Hermitage Capital.
As described by the Atlantic, “Magnitsky uncovered what he alleged to be a complicated scheme by which officials from the Russian Interior Ministry and the courts used forged Hermitage documents to claim ownership of Browder’s fund, and then sued the Russian government, saying that they, the new pseudo-owners of Hermitage, had overpaid their taxes by $230 million. The courts and the Russian tax system, by Magnitsky’s account, speedily obliged, shelling out $230 million to the new owners, who then invested in luxury apartments in Moscow and abroad.”
Further, “when Magnitsky sued the Russian state for this alleged fraud, he was arrested at home in front of his kids, and kept in prison, in filthy conditions, for nearly a year until he developed pancreatitis and gall stones. In November 2009, Magnitsky, 37, was found dead, chained to his bed and lying in a pool of his own urine. Apparently, when he was dying and screaming in pain, the prison guards summoned not emergency medical help, but psychiatrists.”
Outraged, Browder took to action, lobbying Congress to respond to the alleged human rights abuses. After campaigning vociferously to bring those responsible for his former lawyer’s death to justice, Browder’s actions lead to the adoption of the Magnitsky Act. In retaliation, the Russian government responded by banning American adoptions of Russian children. At the time the adoption ban was passed, the Russian Federation had more orphaned and abandoned children than it did after the end of World War II.
Despite attempts to silence him and others related to the Magnitsky Act, Browder has not remained quiet. Browder recently testified publicly in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about his account and the Magnitsky Act.
Noticing this oft-unnoticed Presidential Memorandum, Browder took to Twitter, offering his suspicions.
Something's cooking in DC on the Global Magnitsky Act https://t.co/1GJDfLLAWP
— Bill Browder (@Billbrowder) September 9, 2017
• A Presidential Memo, authored by Trump, has delegated control over Russian financial sanctions under the Magnitsky Act to Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. While the move could simply be an attempt to improve ‘optics’ on Trump and his relationship with Russia, this delegation has potentially explosive implications if it is a precursor to lifting sanctions.
• Russia has been enraged by the Magnitsky Act, retaliating with a ban on U.S. adoptions of Russian children and, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, attempting to influence the 2016 presidential election away from Clinton as a result.
• Will the Department of the Treasury lift Magnitsky sanctions? If so, what will be the political fallout?
• Will Russia quiet or slow down its escalating rhetoric aimed at Trump as a result of the action? Will they see this as an olive branch or fulfillment of a desired “quid pro quo?”
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