Following President Trump’s most recent eyebrow-raising comments about Russia, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are raising fresh concerns over the administration’s efforts to implement the sanctions package they overwhelmingly approved more than three months ago.
After speaking with Russian President Vladimir Putin on several occasions during an economic summit in Vietnam, Trump said over the weekend that he believed Putin was sincere regarding his denials about interfering in the 2016 elections, despite U.S. intelligence findings to the contrary. In further attempting to strike a more conciliatory tone with Russia, Trump also said the country has been “very, very heavily sanctioned” and that it was “time to get back to healing a world that is shattered and broken.”
While Trump signed the Russia-sanctions legislation in early August, his administration has yet to impose any new penalties. And after the White House missed the first deadline in the implementation process by several weeks, legislators are once again questioning Trump’s commitment to carrying out the sanctions.
“We are concerned that there is a lack of understanding and commitment about Russia’s activities,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Ben Cardin. “We haven’t seen any indication yet that they will fully comply with the law.”
The sanctions legislation has repeatedly run into roadblocks since it was originally introduced by a bipartisan group of senators, led by Cardin and Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, at the beginning of the year to punish Russia for meddling in the presidential campaign, among other reasons. Despite objections from the White House and a series of procedural hiccups on the Hill, the package, which lawmakers combined with additional sanctions against Iran and North Korea, passed through both chambers over the summer with only a handful of dissenting votes.
Trump signed the bill soon after, but issued a statement at the time calling it “seriously flawed,” saying the measure inappropriately limited executive power and would negatively affect companies at home and allies abroad.
The administration had until Oct. 1 to provide guidance to Congress on how it planned to implement the sanctions, but it did not do so until Oct. 26. Lawmakers and aides on Capitol Hill have continued to complain about the slow pace of the process, and are now keeping a close eye on the next deadline, Jan. 29. Trump has until then to impose sanctions on the defense and intelligence sectors in Russia.
Cardin said staffers from his and McCain’s office have been in close contact with officials from the State and Treasury departments to try to ensure the implementation process goes smoothly. Asked if he was concerned about the administration moving too slowly to put the sanctions in place, McCain responded, “Of course. [Russia is] in violation of the law.”
A State Department spokesperson said the Russia-sanctions package “is a complex piece of legislation” and that the department is “committed to its implementation.”
“We will continue to work with our allies and partners as we move forward with implementation in order to impose costs on Russia, while seeking to avoid unforeseen negative impacts on others,” the spokesperson said.
Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said Trump’s latest remarks show why he and his colleagues felt compelled to pass legislation that would rein in the executive’s authority on this issue. The bill included a provision that would provide Congress with the power to review any changes to Russia-sanctions policy.
“We’ve questioned that from the very beginning,” Kaine said of Trump’s commitment to the Russia sanctions. “That’s why we structured the Russia-sanctions bill the way we did. And I think this is something in the purview of the committee, to have oversight over whether that is being done appropriately.”
On top of Trump’s public stances on Russia, lawmakers also have expressed concerns about the administration’s ability to carry out the sanctions. Trump has still not provided nominees for dozens of key positions at the State Department. And according to a recent report in Foreign Policy, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson eliminated an office that oversaw sanctions policy as part of a larger restructuring of the department. The responsibility of coordinating sanctions policy now lies with a single official in the policy-planning office.
“To their benefit, these sanctions are difficult to get rolling,” said Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, who helped guide the legislation through Congress. “The State Department, as you know, is not functioning particularly well, I hate to say. … They’re undermanned.
“I felt good about their steps they took a few weeks ago to implement,” Corker added, “but Congress is going to stay on top of that and ensure that the sanctions that need to be put in place are followed through on.”
Other senators echoed Corker’s sentiment. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he believed the administration would fully implement the law, but added that Congress would stand ready to act if it did not.
“Their job is to execute the law, and if they don’t, they will be criticized for it, and the only recourse at that point would be judicial action to force the enforcement of the law,” Rubio told National Journal. “But my expectation is the administration, whether they agree with the law or not, will execute the law.”