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As Congress acts to punish Russia for election meddling and aggression, Trump faces bind

President Donald Trump, leaves the White House in Washington, Saturday, July 22, 2017, for a trip to Norfolk, Va., to participate in the commissioning ceremony for the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford.
President Donald Trump, leaves the White House in Washington, Saturday, July 22, 2017, for a trip to Norfolk, Va., to participate in the commissioning ceremony for the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford. AP

Congressional leaders have reached an agreement on sweeping sanctions legislation to punish Russia for its election meddling toward its neighbors, they said Saturday, defying the White House’s argument that President Donald Trump needs flexibility to adjust the sanctions to fit his diplomatic initiatives with Moscow.

The new legislation sharply limits the president’s ability to suspend or terminate the sanctions — a remarkable handcuffing by a Republican-led Congress six months into Trump’s tenure. It is also the latest Russia-tinged turn for a presidency consumed by investigations into the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russian officials last year.

Trump could soon face a decision: veto the bill – a move that would fuel accusations that he is doing the bidding of President Vladimir Putin of Russia – or sign legislation imposing sanctions his administration abhors.

“A nearly united Congress is poised to send President Putin a clear message on behalf of the American people and our allies, and we need President Trump to help us deliver that message,” said Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The White House has not publicly spoken about the compromise legislation. But two senior administration officials said they could not imagine Trump vetoing the legislation in the current political atmosphere, even if he regards it as interfering with his executive authority to conduct foreign policy. But as ever, Trump retains the capacity to surprise, and this would be his first decision about whether to veto a significant bill.

Congress has complicated his choice because the legislation also encompasses new sanctions against Iran and North Korea, two countries the administration has been eager to punish for its activities.

A sanctions package had stalled in the Republican-led House for weeks after winning near-unanimous support in the Senate last month. Democrats accused Republicans of delaying quick action on the bill at the behest of the Trump administration, which had asked for more flexibility in its relationship with Russia and took up the cause of energy companies, defense contractors and other financial players who suggested that certain provisions could harm U.S. businesses.

The House version of the bill includes a small number of changes, technical and substantive, from the Senate legislation, including some made in response to concerns raised by oil and gas companies.

But for the most part, the Republican leadership appears to have rejected most of the White House’s objections. The bill aims to punish Russia not only for interference in the election but also for its annexation of Crimea, continuing military activity in eastern Ukraine and human rights abuses. Proponents of the measure seek to impose sanctions on people involved in human rights abuses, suppliers of weapons to the government of President Bashar Assad in Syria and those undermining cybersecurity, among others.

Paired with the sanctions against Iran and North Korea, the House version of the bill was set for a vote Tuesday, according to the office of Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and the chamber’s majority leader.

The collaboration delivers benefits to members of both parties. Democrats have sought to make Russia pay for its interference in the 2016 election, which many of them believe contributed to Trump’s triumph over Hillary Clinton. And Republicans, who have long placed an aggressive stance toward Russia at the center of their foreign policy, can quiet critics who have suggested they are shielding the president from scrutiny by failing to embrace the sanctions.

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