The White House is weighing additional sanctions against Russia, senior administration officials said Wednesday, pushing back against allegations that Donald Trump has been a soft touch on Moscow.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, officials said a "task force" has been set up to address potential meddling in the 2018 congressional elections and work is underway to introduce more sanctions in response to Moscow's 2016 campaign.
Highlighting one potentially far-reaching step, a senior administration official said they have already warned governments around the world that they could face sanctions for "significant transactions" with the Russian military.
That includes NATO ally Turkey, which has publicly announced the purchase of a Russian S-400 air defense missile system, which is seen as a challenge to US air superiority.
A second official said that "a couple of big countries" were reconsidering their purchases as a result of the global diplomatic "demarche."
Those type of third country sanctions were part of a package of measures passed by Congress approved last July, that were opposed by the White House.
Trump's vocal opposition to the package -- which entered into law earlier this year -- and his regular praise of Vladimir Putin has raised questions about whether the administration is dragging its feet.
Several members of Trump's campaign have been charged or admitted to lying to the FBI about their contacts with Kremlin-related officials who are accused of trying to sway the 2016 vote in Trump's favor.
US officials on Wednesday admitted no specific sanctions had been introduced yet, but said that was because the administration was doing its due diligence, rather than an attempt to slow-walk the process.
- 'National security issue' -
The first official also stressed the need to avoid leaks that could tip off potential sanction targets, allowing them to move money out of bank accounts or take other mitigating steps.
"We are doing an awful lot of work, we are taking this very seriously, it is a national security issue," the official said, answering criticism.
"I would hope you would just give us a little bit of an indulgence to do some of these things behind the scenes and be able to reveal them when we can."
"We would like to get after these guys and we would like to catch them in the act and not enable them to change course … so that we have a harder time detecting them."
One example given was the shuttering of the Russian consulate in San Francisco, which was ordered closed late last year, taking Moscow by surprise.
"The Russians did not see that coming" said the first official, adding, "which is an absolute bloody miracle frankly" given reporting before a decision was made.
A third administration official hit back directly at unfavorable comparisons to Barack Obama's administration.
"The categorical thing that I've seen in so much coverage... that it is an abject fact that the previous administration was tougher than this administration is provably false," a third official said.
Trump has recently tried to shift the blame for election meddling -- which he had once decried as "fake news" -- onto Obama, arguing it occurred on his watch.
"Question: If all of the Russian meddling took place during the Obama Administration, right up to January 20th, why aren't they the subject of the investigation?" he tweeted on Wednesday morning.
"Why didn't Obama do something about the meddling? Why aren't Dem crimes under investigation? Ask Jeff Sessions!" he added, urging his Attorney General to act.