On Russia Sanctions, Democrats Have Few Options

Congressional Democrats are blasting the Trump administration’s move, but it would be difficult to force the implementation of new penalties on Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Trump talk at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Danang, Vietnam on Nov. 11, 2017.
AP Photo/Hau Dinh
Adam Wollner
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Adam Wollner
Jan. 31, 2018, 8 p.m.

Sen. Chuck Schumer accused President Trump of “extreme dereliction of duty.” Sen. Claire McCaskill called it a “constitutional crisis.” And Rep. Eliot Engel charged that the White House “let Russia off the hook yet again.”

Democrats have jumped on the opportunity this week to attack the Trump administration for declining to impose new sanctions on Russia that were part of a package that passed overwhelmingly through both chambers of Congress last year. From a political standpoint, the issue may well be a winner for the Democrats. But if they want to force the implementation of the penalties, their options are limited, especially without support from their Republican colleagues.

Lawmakers intended for these sanctions on Moscow to be mandatory. But the legislation allowed the president to waive the first round of penalties, which were set to target Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors, if it was “in the vital national security interests” of the U.S. or if the Kremlin made an effort to reduce their cyberintrusions.

Monday marked the first day that the administration could levy those sanctions. But a State Department spokesperson said they were not needed at this time because the law itself is working as a “deterrent” against further aggression. Meanwhile, the Treasury Department released a congressionally mandated list—which which was partially copied from a Forbes report—that merely put prominent Russian political and business figures on notice, but refrained from sanctioning them.

These moves did not satisfy Democrats on the Hill, who argued that the sanctions bill was designed to punish Russia for meddling in the 2016 elections, not just prevent action. They also pointed to comments this week from CIA director Mike Pompeo, who said he has “every expectation” that Moscow will try to interfere in the 2018 campaign.

“There was this tiny amount of wiggle room in that statute and the administration used it to get out of applying sanctions,” Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, told National Journal. “I’d be interested in going back to the drawing board and passing truly mandatory sanctions that involve no wiggle [room]. Whether Republicans are willing to do that, I don’t know.”

Murphy wasn’t the only Democrat floating the idea of new legislation to force the administration’s hand. Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a cosponsor of the Russia-sanctions measure, urged Congress to take up a bill he introduced last year to specifically target those who interfered in the last election. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer also opened the door to “further legislation” during a pen-and-pad session with reporters Tuesday.

But for a bill to go anywhere, Democrats will need the GOP on board. And for the time being, Republican leaders are supportive of the administration’s decision, even though they strongly backed fresh sanctions on Russia last summer.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker, who shepherded the sanctions legislation through Congress and hasn’t shied away from criticizing Trump, said that “on the whole, it is clear the administration is working in good faith, and I am committed to applying pressure, as needed, to ensure further implementation.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell associated himself with those remarks, adding that the administration “did the right thing.”

That sentiment extended to the other side of the Capitol. House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce, another sponsor of the sanctions bill, said “these measures are already succeeding in squashing business with bad actors.”

Still, the administration’s decision didn’t sit well with every Republican. “I don’t agree with it,” Sen. Marco Rubio, who helped introduce the first version of sanctions legislation in early 2017, told National Journal. “I’m not happy about it, obviously.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham also questioned the move, saying he didn’t “want to send anything that could be a signal of weakness.” Sen. Susan Collins said it was “perplexing.” And Sen. John Kennedy said he was “disappointed,” adding that “we ought to hit President Putin so hard he’ll cough up bones.”

But they were all mum on whether they would try to spur action on the sanctions. Asked if there’s anything Congress should do, Rubio said, “I think for future reference, maybe there won’t be a national security waiver on those laws if that’s the way they’re going to interpret it.”

Aside from legislation, there are other more extreme actions that lawmakers could take. They could file a long-shot lawsuit alleging that the president is refusing to execute the law. They could also block Trump’s nominees or withhold funding for federal agencies. But those last two options would leave Democrats open to attacks of hypocrisy since they have been urging the administration to fill vacant executive-branch posts and fully fund the State Department.

For now, Democrats may have to settle for publicly criticizing the administration. A group of 20 Democrats sent a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson late Tuesday calling the lack of new Russia sanctions “unacceptable.” Democrats also turned up the heat on Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin on this issue at a Banking Committee hearing Tuesday. After repeated questioning, Mnuchin assured them that “there will be sanctions that come out of this report,” possibly within two or three months.

“We need strong oversight. … We need to make it clear what the law requires,” Ben Cardin, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking member, said on CNN. “Congress needs to continue to put a spotlight on this so that the administration takes action.”

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