Trump officials take heat for declining Russia sanctions

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The Trump administration faced blowback on Capitol Hill Tuesday for declining to implement new sanctions against Russia for interfering in the 2016 presidential election.

The State Department on Monday said it would not immediately levy penalties on entities doing business with Russia’s defense sector, saying that the law passed by Congress last summer has already prevented a windfall of cash from going to Russia.

“I’d like to know why they’re not doing more,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamPress: Congress must protect Mueller from Trump Overnight Health Care: Senate Dems block 20-week abortion ban | Azar sworn in as HHS chief | Dems demand answers on family planning funds | GOP takes sting out of ObamaCare Dems block 20-week abortion ban MORE (R-S.C.) said of the sanctions. “There may be a good reason, but I don’t want to send anything that could be a signal of weakness.”

Lawmakers last year passed legislation to punish Moscow with a veto-proof majority in both chambers of Congress, forcing President TrumpDonald John TrumpCynthia Nixon calls for Americans to ‘take to the streets’ if Trump fires Mueller Trump declines to implement new Russia sanctions Comey praises McCabe: He ‘stood tall’ while ‘small people’ tried to tear down the FBI MORE to sign it.

The law tied Trump’s hands on Russia, limiting his abilities to ease sanctions on the country — and he made clear his unhappiness with it. He called the law “seriously flawed” and said it infringed on his powers under the Constitution.

The State Department faced a Monday deadline under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) to begin imposing sanctions on foreign firms and governments doing large amounts of business with Russia’s defense and intelligence sector. But the law allows for the department to decide against imposing sanctions if companies are winding down their business dealings with Moscow.

Facing criticism, State Department officials sought Tuesday to clarify the decision to not announce new sanctions. They touted months of engagement with countries and companies internationally that they said have already derailed potential business deals with Moscow.

“We have been able to turn off potential deals that equal several billion dollars,” a senior State Department official told reporters. The official said the intent of this Trump administration is “to remind Russia of the cost of its malign activity.”

“It’s important not to focus only on public rollouts as we look at this success of this tool,” the official said.

On Capitol Hill, the sanctions decision amplified the general feeling that the Trump administration is unwilling to aggressively impose penalties on Russia.

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsDems block 20-week abortion ban Pro-ObamaCare group launches new ads ahead of State of the Union, GOP retreat Portman gives Wynn donation to charities MORE (R-Maine) called the sanctions move “perplexing” during an interview on CNN, pointing to the widespread belief that Moscow will look to interfere in future elections.

Democrats were more scathing in their criticism, with Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillGOP goes on offense with 20-week abortion vote Chaos in Trump world leaves Democrats walking fine line These Democrats will have a hard time keeping their seats in 2018 MORE (D-Mo.) accusing the president of ignoring the sanctions legislation and calling the development “a constitutional crisis.”

Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinEPA chief braces for grilling from Senate Dems Chelsea Manning says she wants to challenge the ‘establishment’ with Senate run Trump faces tough road ahead in Syria MORE (D-Md.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was still reviewing the administration’s implementation of the bill, but that he was disappointed so far.

“Not one sanction has been announced to date, so yes, I am disappointed there has not been a more aggressive use of the law that Congress passed,” Cardin told reporters.

Peter Harrell, a former State Department official who worked on sanctions policy during the Obama administration, said the department’s decision falls in line with the law, but noted that officials could have sent a “much stronger message” by announcing some sanctions.

“I think the State Department met the minimum legal requirement here,” Harrell said.

State Department officials refused to quantify the deals with Russia they were able to derail or offer any details about their engagements with other countries.

Separately, the Treasury Department was required by midnight Monday under the law to issue a report listing senior Russian officials with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and wealthy Russian oligarchs.

The department released a list of more than 200 Russian oligarchs and officials connected to Putin, noting it was not a sanctions list. The list was compiled using a Forbes article, a fact that Democrats grabbed onto in criticizing the administration.

“I am absolutely disappointed,” said Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenHouse passes sexual abuse reporting bill after Nassar sentencing Dems press Trump for ‘Buy American’ proposals in infrastructure plan Entire USA Gymnastics board to resign over sexual assault scandal MORE (D-N.H.), a Foreign Relations Committee member who helped negotiate the sanctions bill. “They’ve had six months and all they release is a list that they basically copied from Forbes magazine, and they’ve already acknowledged that. It’s unacceptable.”

Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinOvernight Finance: House Appropriations chair to retire | Exit sets off fight for gavel | GOP banks on tax cuts to help in midterms | Crypto exchange under scrutiny after theft | Conservatives push Trump on capital gains taxes Overnight Regulation: White House downplays talk of nationalizing 5G after blowback | Azar sworn in as HHS chief | EPA chief set for grilling | Crypto exchange under scrutiny after massive theft The Hill’s 12:30 Report MORE promised to impose new sanctions on Russia when he came under criticism during a hearing with lawmakers Tuesday morning. The Treasury Department is not required under the law to impose sanctions on the Russian individuals, many of whom are already subject to U.S. sanctions.

“It’s not getting any better, Mr. Secretary,” Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) said at the hearing. “I really think we’re sending the wrong message.”

Still, several Republicans refrained from criticizing the administration, taking more of a wait-and-see approach.

“I’m very invested in this, right,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerJuan Williams: The Russian war goes on Steve Wynn resigns as RNC finance chair after sexual misconduct allegations At Davos, Trump can ensure ‘American First’ isn’t ‘America Alone’ MORE (R-Tenn.) told reporters, echoing his written statement on the issue. “I care deeply about it. And we got a report late, late, late last night. We’re very familiar with what needs to happen on the sanctions. And the answer is I do think they’ve made a very good faith effort.”

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed RoyceEdward (Ed) Randall RoyceHouse GOP Appropriations chairman calls it quits Overnight Cybersecurity: Tech execs testify on countering extremist content | House approves cyber diplomacy bill | Pentagon reportedly mulling nuclear response to cyberattacks House votes to restore State cyber office, bucking Tillerson MORE (R-Calif.) told The Hill that the Treasury Department is putting the Russians “on notice” and now needs to determine which individuals on the list of oligarchs should be sanctioned.

“This is the process you pretty much have to follow in terms of dealing with the Europeans who we are trying to affect here,” Royce said. “They are following the procedure.”

Royce sent a letter to Mnuchin on Tuesday urging him to determine which Russians on the list should be subject to sanctions under previous actions that punished Moscow for human rights abuses and destabilizing behavior in Ukraine.

The issue of Russian interference in the election has consumed lawmakers in Washington for the last year, triggering concurrent congressional investigations as well as an ongoing probe by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE.

The interference effort has triggered widespread fears that Moscow could interfere in future votes, driving the push for last year’s sanctions bill as well as other legislative attempts to deter foreign meddling.

CIA Director Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoPresident Trump leans into Syria’s war Mueller keeps Russia cards close to the vest Pompeo interviewed in Mueller’s Russia probe, Yates cooperating: report MORE said during an interview with BBC published Monday that he has “every expectation” that Russia will seek to meddle in this year’s midterm elections.

The State Department could decide in the future to punish firms for doing business with Russia’s defense sector if it detects sanctioned activity, but it faces no further deadline to do so under the law.

“The questions are, what do Treasury and State do going forward?” Harrell, the former State Department official, said.





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