Trump gets a ma­jor bill, and it’s on Rus­sia

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

The most con­se­quen­tial piece of leg­is­la­tion that the Repub­li­can-led Con­gress has de­liv­ered to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump af­ter seven months is a new pack­age of fi­nan­cial penal­ties against Rus­sia that he didn’t want to sign into law. But he’s go­ing to. He would have faced a po­lit­i­cal firestorm if he re­jected the leg­is­la­tion. The House over­whelm­ingly backed the bill, 419-3, and the Se­nate rapidly fol­low­ing their lead on a 98-2 vote. Those mas­sive mar­gins guar­an­teed that Con­gress would be able to beat back any pos­si­ble at­tempt by Trump to re­ject the mea­sure. The leg­is­la­tion, which also pun­ishes Iran and North Korea, takes aim at Moscow for med­dling in the 2016 US elec­tion and for its mil­i­tary ag­gres­sion in Ukraine and Syria.

Pro­vi­sions backed by Repub­li­can and Democrats would hand­cuff Trump on the Rus­sia sanc­tions due to wor­ries among law­mak­ers that he may ease the fi­nan­cial hits with­out first se­cur­ing con­ces­sions from Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin. Repub­li­cans re­fused to budge even af­ter the White House com­plained that the “con­gres­sional re­view” in­fringed on Trump’s ex­ec­u­tive au­thor­ity.

But as Trump faced the em­bar­rass­ing pos­si­bil­ity of be­ing over­ruled by his own party, the White House an­nounced late Fri­day that he “ap­proves the bill and in­tends to sign it.” The state­ment from press sec­re­tary Sarah Huck­abee San­ders also said Trump “read early drafts of the bill and ne­go­ti­ated re­gard­ing crit­i­cal el­e­ments of it.” She didn’t spec­ify the “crit­i­cal el­e­ments,” and law­mak­ers have said the White House was largely ab­sent as they crafted the leg­is­la­tion.

In a state­ment Satur­day, Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son said the near unan­i­mous votes “rep­re­sent the strong will of the Amer­i­can peo­ple to see Rus­sia take steps to im­prove re­la­tions with the United States.” He said he hoped for co­op­er­a­tion with Rus­sia that would make the sanc­tions un­nec­es­sary. That a bill to hit back at Rus­sia would be the sin­gu­lar ac­com­plish­ment so far un­der­scores how the an­grily con­tested 2016 elec­tion con­tin­ues to re­ver­ber­ate on Capi­tol Hill. But it’s also a prod­uct of Trump’s own mak­ing - and one he failed or re­fused to see de­vel­op­ing in Con­gress.

In­stead of look­ing for way to re­tal­i­ate against Moscow, Trump openly chal­lenged the find­ings of his own in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, which con­cluded Rus­sia had in­ter­fered with the in­ten­tion of tip­ping the elec­tion in his be­half. And he pur­sued a warmer re­la­tion­ship with Putin, con­vinced that Washington and the Krem­lin could work to­gether on shared in­ter­ests, such as coun­tert­er­ror­ism and Syria.


But a vast ma­jor­ity of con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans have long viewed Rus­sia as the en­emy. House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke for a large swath of his cau­cus when he re­cently de­clared him­self a “Rus­sia hawk”. Their mis­giv­ings were re­in­forced by Trump’s de­fense sec­re­tary, re­tired Marine Corps Gen. Jim Mat­tis, who said dur­ing his con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing in Jan­uary that “his­tory isn’t a strait­jacket,” but a guide for deal­ing with Moscow. He said there have been many at­tempts by the United States over the years to try anew with Rus­sia, but the list of suc­cesses was short. Mat­tis’ opin­ion hadn’t shifted sev­eral months later when he told the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee that he’d yet to see “any in­di­ca­tion that Mr Putin would want a pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ship with us”.

Still, House and Se­nate lead­ers had agreed to give Tiller­son time to, as Sen Bob Corker said, “change the tra­jec­tory of the US re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia,” es­pe­cially in Syria, where the Krem­lin backs Pres­i­dent Bashar Al-As­sad. But Corker, the Ten­nessee Repub­li­can who heads the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, and his GOP col­leagues ran out of pa­tience in late May. “I see no dif­fer­ence what­so­ever,” Corker said, sig­nal­ing he would throw his sup­port be­hind leg­is­la­tion to pe­nal­ize Rus­sia.

A bill to pun­ish both Rus­sia and Iran cleared the Se­nate on June 15 with 98 votes. Yet Trump re­mained bullish on the prospect of work­ing with Putin. At an in­ter­na­tional sum­mit in Germany this month, Trump met sev­eral times with Putin, but the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent de­clined to pub­licly give the kind of con­dem­na­tion that his staff in­sisted he de­liver to the Rus­sian leader over Moscow’s elec­tion in­ter­fer­ence. And he let a chal­lenge from Putin, who said Trump ac­cepted his de­nial of Rus­sian in­volve­ment in the 2016 elec­tion, go largely unan­swered.


A team of House and Se­nate ne­go­tia­tors late last week re­solved sev­eral lin­ger­ing is­sues with the sanc­tions bill and also agreed to add the North Korea penal­ties. The sanc­tions against North Korea took on added ur­gency af­ter the North on Fri­day test-fired its sec­ond in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile, which flew longer and higher than its first ICBM launched earlier this month. Sen Ben Cardin of Mary­land, the top rank­ing Demo­crat on the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, said af­ter the lat­est test that he ex­pects Trump to sign the leg­is­la­tion “with­out de­lay.”

Left in­tact, how­ever, was the con­gres­sional re­view sec­tion of the bill. Trump had pri­vately ex­pressed frus­tra­tion that Con­gress was de­mand­ing the abil­ity to limit or over­ride the power of the White House on na­tional se­cu­rity mat­ters. Yet no one emerged in Con­gress to be Trump’s cham­pion. The House eas­ily backed the sanc­tions on Tues­day, and two days later, in the midst of health care, the Se­nate cleared the bill and sent it to the pres­i­dent. De­spite the im­pos­ing num­bers, Trump’s new com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor, An­thony Scara­mucci, sug­gested be­fore the Se­nate’s vote on Thurs­day that the pres­i­dent still might veto the bill and use his prow­ess as a deal­maker to “ne­go­ti­ate an even tougher deal against the Rus­sians”.

But Corker quickly threw cold wa­ter on that idea. If Trump were to re­ject the bill, he said, Con­gress could un­ques­tion­ably over­rule him and that would sting. “It shows a di­min­ish­ment of their au­thor­ity,” Corker said of pres­i­dents who have their ve­toes coun­ter­manded. “I just don’t think that’s a good way to start off as pres­i­dent.” —AP

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