White House mildly criticizes Russian bill targeting U.S. media

(Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP, Getty)
(Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP, Getty)

In a mild rebuke to Moscow, the White House on Wednesday said it was “concerned” after Russian lawmakers voted to require international news outlets to register as “foreign agents.” The unanimous vote by Russia’s lower house, called the Duma, came in retaliation for similar steps targeting Kremlin-backed RT television in the United States.

“We are aware of the developments in Russia,” a spokesman for President Trump’s National Security Council told Yahoo News. “We would be concerned about any foreign action to target American media companies and restrict their operations.”

The spokesman requested anonymity, saying that National Security Council spokespeople are not quoted by name. NSC spokespeople have spoken on the record during Trump’s first year in office, and also did so under his three predecessors.

Asked about the relatively mild White House reaction, a congressional aide, who requested anonymity, told Yahoo News that the administration is deliberately “keeping this on simmer, not boil.” The aide, who works on foreign policy issues, said the U.S. response could change depending on Moscow’s actions if the measure is signed into law.

A State Department official, who also requested anonymity, told Yahoo News: “We’re watching this draft legislation carefully to see whether it is passed and how it is implemented.”

The Russian legislation does not name outlets to which it applies, leaving any designations to Russia’s Justice Ministry. But Reuters reported from Moscow that the ministry had notified some U.S. government-funded outlets, like Voice of America, that they would be affected. It’s not clear whether a private outlet, like CNN International, would be covered by the measure.

Earlier in the day, Trump tweeted about being “forced” to watch “Loser!” CNN — a network he has frequently targeted as part of his strategy of waging war on independent news outlets to please his political base. Trump has previously called the mainstream media the “enemy of the American people.”

The proposal needs to clear the upper house and be signed by President Vladimir Putin. Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on Twitter that the legislation requires that registered outlets would have to publish a notice that the news they provide is being distributed by a foreign agent, provide expense reports every three months, and submit reports every two years on their leadership structure and activities.

The ministry left no doubt that the move was retaliatory — it called the vote “a symmetrical response” to the Department of Justice requirement that RT register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). FARA was designed to keep track of lobbyists for foreign entities, including governments. RT did so on Monday.

The NSC spokesman told Yahoo News that “FARA does not inhibit the message or limit the work of registered organizations. FARA is intended to help Americans understand who is acting in the United States to influence the U.S. government or public on behalf of foreign principals.”

In a report last January, the U.S. intelligence community identified RT and the Kremlin-connected Sputnik news agency as part of “Russia’s state run propaganda machine” that serve “as a platform for Kremlin messaging” and played key roles in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “influence campaign” during the 2016 presidential election.

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