White House’s ill-timed knock on Rus­sia sanctions

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

The Trump White House picked the worst pos­si­ble time to crit­i­cize a pack­age of new Rus­sia sanctions that is head­ing to­ward al­most cer­tain and over­whelm­ing ap­proval by Congress. The ad­min­is­tra­tion stayed on the side­lines as law­mak­ers crafted the leg­is­la­tion pop­u­lar with Re­pub­li­cans and Democrats alike. And now its com­plaints over a key sec­tion of the bill are drowned out amid Tues­day’s stun­ning rev­e­la­tions that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s el­dest son met with a Russian lawyer after be­ing promised dam­ag­ing in­for­ma­tion on Hil­lary Clin­ton sup­plied by the Krem­lin.

“Re­ally none,” Sen Bob Corker, chair­man of the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, an­swered when asked what role the White House played in de­vel­op­ing the leg­is­la­tion. He said Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son knew the bill was be­ing drafted, but the State Depart­ment didn’t of­fer any sub­stan­tive ad­vice be­fore it passed the Se­nate last month with 98 votes. “This was not done in the dark,” Corker said.

Many law­mak­ers viewed the pres­i­dent’s de­sire for warmer re­la­tions with Moscow war­ily long be­fore Trump’s son re­leased emails that showed him search­ing dis­parag­ing in­for­ma­tion on Clin­ton thought to pos­si­bly be avail­able through sources con­nected to the Russian gov­ern­ment. They’ve sup­ported in­quiries by the House and Se­nate in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tees into Rus­sia’s med­dling in the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion and praised the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s choice of for­mer FBI Di­rec­tor Robert Mueller to lead a sep­a­rate in­ves­ti­ga­tion into whether the Trump cam­paign col­luded with Moscow. Trump didn’t help mat­ters when he re­fused to pub­licly de­nounce Vladimir Putin the same way his staff in­sisted he did in pri­vate dur­ing a meet­ing last week with the Russian leader. The up­shot is that Trump, still ea­ger for a big win on Capi­tol Hill, may face a dif­fi­cult choice in­stead: Sign the sanctions bill into law and pos­si­bly scut­tle his bid for a new part­ner­ship with Rus­sia - or veto the leg­is­la­tion, set off an out­cry and risk hav­ing that de­ci­sion over­turned by Congress.

Sen Ben Cardin of Mary­land, the top Demo­crat on the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, called for Congress to “act defini­tively and im­me­di­ately” on the sanctions leg­is­la­tion fol­low­ing Tues­day’s dis­clo­sures by Don­ald Trump Jr. The dearth of con­struc­tive in­put for an im­por­tant piece of leg­is­la­tion may stem from the fail­ure to prop­erly staff the State and Trea­sury de­part­ments, the fed­eral agen­cies pri­mar­ily re­spon­si­ble for ad­min­is­ter­ing sanctions pro­grams. The White House has blamed Democrats for ob­struct­ing Trump’s qual­i­fied nom­i­nees. But Democrats fired back, say­ing it’s the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s fault for mov­ing at a glacial pace to fill key va­can­cies.

Bi­par­ti­san Back­ing

Ei­ther way, White House ob­jec­tions over the bill come too late to mat­ter. The sec­tion of the bill the ad­min­is­tra­tion dis­likes has strong bi­par­ti­san back­ing. The pro­vi­sions would re­quire a con­gres­sional re­view if Trump seeks to ease or end the sanctions against Moscow. The pro­vi­sions are styled after 2015 leg­is­la­tion pushed by Re­pub­li­cans and ap­proved in the Se­nate that gave Congress a vote on whether then Pres­i­dent Barack Obama could lift sanctions against Iran.

Marc Short, the White House leg­isla­tive di­rec­tor, said Mon­day that the sanctions re­view sec­tion “sets an un­usual prece­dent of del­e­gat­ing for­eign pol­icy to 535 mem­bers of Congress”. Of­fi­cials from the Trea­sury and State de­part­ments met last week with House con­gres­sional staff in a be­lated at­tempt to voice their con­cerns over the con­gres­sional re­view. They said the sec­tion would in­fringe on the pres­i­dent’s ex­ec­u­tive au­thor­ity.

But Corker pre­dicted the House would soon pass a sanctions bill “al­most iden­ti­cal” to the leg­is­la­tion that cleared the Se­nate eas­ily in mid-June. Only one Repub­li­can, Sen Rand Paul of Ken­tucky, op­posed the bill, which also slaps Tehran with new sanctions. The ad­min­is­tra­tion had its chance. Tiller­son had the ideal fo­rum to voice con­cerns and ob­jec­tions when he tes­ti­fied be­fore the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee on June 13, the morn­ing after Se­nate Re­pub­li­cans and Democrats agreed on the Rus­sia sanctions leg­is­la­tion.

But Tiller­son was am­bigu­ous when Sen Bob Me­nen­dez asked him about the Rus­sia sanctions bill. He told the com­mit­tee he was still re­view­ing the pro­posal, but cau­tioned law­mak­ers against leg­is­la­tion that would tie the pres­i­dent’s hands dur­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions with Putin. Two days later, the Se­nate ap­proved the bill slap­ping sanctions on Rus­sia and Iran. White House spokesman Sean Spicer de­clined nearly two weeks later to com­ment on the leg­is­la­tion, call­ing the mea­sure “hy­po­thet­i­cal”. — AP

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