Senate GOP Searches for a Way Forward on Russia Post-Mueller

Some Republicans aren’t on board with the idea of new measures targeting the Kremlin.

Sen. Lindsey Graham
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
March 27, 2019, 8 p.m.

Top Senate Republicans are calling for harsher sanctions on Russia in the wake of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, but with the clock ticking on the 2020 elections they have limited time to unite the caucus.

Sens. Lindsey Graham and Cory Gardner, who both sit on the Foreign Relations Committee, said Mueller’s report confirms that stronger action is warranted before the 2020 election. But they may have trouble convincing some fellow Republicans who are skeptical that any new measures would change the Kremlin's behavior to back their new push.

“[The Mueller report] reinforces they did it, and I think it will reinforce that they’re still doing it,” Graham said. “So I’d like to punish them more, but I’d also like to defend the infrastructure, because it’s just not Russia that we’re worried about.”

According to Attorney General William Barr’s summary of Mueller’s report, the Kremlin attempted to “sow social discord, eventually with the aim of interfering with the election,” and Russian actors “successfully hacked into computers and obtained emails from persons affiliated with the Clinton campaign and Democratic Party organizations, and publicly disseminated those materials through various intermediaries, including WikiLeaks.”

Graham, who traveled to Mar-a-Lago with President Trump to await the release of the report last Friday, called for Congress to “move on” and “get ready to combat Russia and other foreign actors ahead of 2020.” The hope behind the release of the Mueller report, Graham said, would be to get “a better understanding of what to do in 2020.”

Graham said he spoke with Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr and Vice Chair Mark Warner on Tuesday, noting that “these guys are the experts on, ‘This is what Russia did, this is how they did it, this is what they’re likely to do next time.’” He said he’s looking to “get these guys married up with the Mueller report, whatever I may find out, and come out with a sort of a defensive strategy here.”

Graham and Gardner also cosponsored a package of reforms in mid-February that Graham dubbed the “sanctions bill from hell.” The legislation, cosponsored by Foreign Relations ranking member Bob Menendez, would impose sanctions on political figures, oligarchs, and any “parastatal entities” that facilitate or engage in corruption on Vladimir Putin’s behalf. The bill would also levy sanctions against individuals or companies that provide $1 million worth of assistance to Russia’s crude-oil program.

Gardner called the bill “a good start,” and vowed to continue pursuing sanctions. Like Graham, he said the details from the Mueller report would also help the Senate calibrate election-security measures, and called for its release.

But the 119-page Graham-Gardner bill contains a number of other provisions—like blocking Trump from spending funds to withdraw from NATO without a two-thirds vote of approval in the Senate—that could trip up the bill. Foreign Relations Committee Chair James Risch said that Russia deserves “more sanctioning” but declined to say whether he would take up the bill. According to his communications director, Kaylin Minton, among the ideas under consideration is “updating and strengthening" the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, a bill passed in 2017 targeting Russia with an array of sanctions.

Graham and Gardner have yet to unify the caucus behind a fresh round of sanctions.

Sens. Rob Portman and Todd Young said further action could be warranted but that they want to first see the Mueller report. Several Republicans off the Foreign Relations Committee, meanwhile, cast cold water on the idea.

“I don’t know how you change the behavior of Russia … of disinformation, of intervening in everything, because that’s what they were about,” Sen. Richard Shelby said. “That is part of their soul.” Shelby added that the Constitution grants the president and secretary of State “the lead” on foreign policy decisions like sanctions.

“We’ve already sanctioned the individuals and companies and filed criminal charges … and that was appropriate,” agreed Sen. Bill Cassidy. “But let’s step back a second. Do we really think that the Russians are not going to try to interfere with us? Of course, we know they are. So let’s not be naive. I don’t think we change their behavior by [imposing] more sanctions on them.”

Amid that discord, Democratic sponsors on Russia-related legislation are openly questioning Republican commitments to combating meddling.

"There remains an opportunity to do that. I think it depends on some other outside factors," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, another sponsor of the sanctions bill. "It has more to do with whether our Republican colleagues are going to find it in their interest to continue to put pressure on Russia."

Another bill relating to Russia, although not directly linked to the interference in the election, is closer to passage. That legislation utilizes the lending authority of the newly formed United States International Development Finance Corporation to direct $1 billion toward alternatives to Russian energy projects in Eastern Europe. The bill passed the House on Tuesday, and Risch said the idea of passing it by unanimous consent was “worth exploring.”

“Their efforts are to divide the West, and not just in our elections,” said Rep. William Keating, who cosponsored the House bill. “And one … of the things that they weaponize is energy.”

The House has suspended the rules to pass a slew of smaller anti-Russia bills in recent weeks, including bipartisan legislation requiring a report on Putin’s financial dealings, legislation that would prevent Trump from recognizing Russia’s claim of sovereignty over Crimea, and the appropriately named Kremlin Act, requiring the Director of National Intelligence to assess how Russia might “exploit weaknesses and divisions among the governments of its Western adversaries.”

“They’re outpacing us,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, who added that he is speaking with Risch about moving the energy legislation forward as a stand-alone bill. Risch said he’s also spoken with the Republican cosponsor, Sen. Ron Johnson.

“I do anticipate action over here,” Risch said. “I can’t tell you when, though.”

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