Earlier this month the White House sent a letter to Congress pledging a commitment to the “robust and thorough enforcement” of the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act (GMA). The GMA, which grew out of a similar 2012 law that focused only on Russia, allows the executive branch to impose certain sanctions—including visa bans and freezing of U.S. assets—on any foreign citizen who commits gross human rights violations or who retaliates against whistleblowers who expose corruption. After Trump won the election, many feared that his administration would shelve meaningful enforcement of the GMA. (After all, the Obama Administration had also been reluctant to implement the original Magnitsky Act aggressively, and did so only under pressure from Congress.) In light of those low expectations, the White House’s statement was taken by many as an encouraging sign.
But many activists and NGOs fighting corruption, in Putin’s Russia and elsewhere, remain rightly skeptical. After all, Trump’s praise and upbeat rhetoric about corrupt authoritarian leaders—not only Putin, but President Erdogan or Turkey and President Duterte of the Philippines—naturally call into question the Administration’s seriousness about aggressive GMA enforcement. Consider further the fact that, despite the overwhelming evidence coming out of Chechnya that its president Ramzan Kadyrov has authorized massive abuses against the LGBT community and opened what is amounting to prisons for gays, there are no signs that the Trump Administration is considering adding Kadyrov to any open sanctions lists, despite not only recent events, but his long track record of corruption and human rights abuses.
Moreover, the White House’s statement in support of the GMA might be an attempt to create the appearance of taking a firm stand against corruption and human rights abuses, to diminish political momentum for more consequential actions. Specifically in regard to Russia, the latest statement about the GMA should also be understood in the context of the broader scandal regarding the Trump team’s ties to Russia. This scandal has, if anything, intensified anti-Russian sentiment in Congress. Not only have leading Senators and Representatives come out in strong support of sustaining existing sanctions against Russia, but there are now a half-dozen initiatives under consideration in Congress that would both codify and expand these sanctions. In such context, it might actually be useful to Trump (and arguably his Russian friends) to appear to be taking firm measures against Russia and other kleptocrats, while resisting adoption or implementation of more meaningful responses. The recent White House statement pledging robust enforcement of the GMA fits that narrative. After all, rhetoric aside, neither the original Magnitsky Act nor the GMA create more than a small headache for Trump and Russians. Only few really high level names have been sanctioned under those initiatives. Financial sanctions (particularly restrictions on long-term loans) are what matters for the Kremlin most. Indeed, Russian leadership might even be happy to have the Magnitsky laws in place if those restrictions are relaxed.