Trump qui­etly signs Rus­sia sanc­tions bill

Pres­i­dent ob­jects to sanc­tions bill but signs it. Prime Min­is­ter Medvedev lashes out.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Noah Bierman noah.bierman @la­times.com Twit­ter: @noah­bier­man

The pres­i­dent calls parts of the mea­sure un­con­sti­tu­tional but sur­ren­ders to Congress’ over­whelm­ing ap­proval.

WASH­ING­TON — Pres­i­dent Trump qui­etly signed leg­is­la­tion Wed­nes­day that im­poses new lim­its on his abil­ity to lift sanc­tions against Rus­sia, say­ing that parts of the mea­sure are un­con­sti­tu­tional but that he was sign­ing it for the “sake of na­tional unity.”

The sign­ing brought a protest from Rus­sia, whose prime min­is­ter ac­cused Trump of show­ing “to­tal weak­ness.” The new law marks a sig­nif­i­cant sur­ren­der by Trump to con­gres­sional ef­forts to limit his dis­cre­tion in han­dling re­la­tions with Moscow.

Trump, who has held lav­ish cer­e­monies to her­ald far less con­se­quen­tial doc­u­ments, signed this bill into law with­out cam­eras, send­ing out two state­ments later, one of which laid out the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s le­gal ar­gu­ments and the other ex­press­ing Trump’s per­sonal ob­jec­tions to the new law.

“As pres­i­dent, I can make far bet­ter deals with for­eign coun­tries than Congress,” he wrote.

He had lit­tle choice about sign­ing the bill. Both houses of Congress, sig­nal­ing skep­ti­cism of his over­tures to­ward Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, ap­proved the mea­sure al­most unan­i­mously. That all but guar­an­teed any veto would be over­rid­den.

The law pre­vents Amer­i­can com­pa­nies from in­vest­ing in many en­ergy projects that are funded by Rus­sian gov­ern­ment in­ter­ests. It also tough­ens sanc­tions against Iran and North Korea.

And it pre­vents Trump from uni­lat­er­ally lift­ing the sanc­tions, giv­ing Congress an ex­tended pe­riod of time to re­view any pres­i­den­tial action that tries to up­end or sig­nif­i­cantly change ex­ist­ing sanc­tions.

Rus­sian Prime Min­is­ter Dmitry Medvedev de­nounced the mea­sure as a “full-scale trade war” and an end to “the hope that our re­la­tions with the new Amer­i­can ad­min­is­tra­tion would im­prove,” while per­son­ally mock­ing Trump.

“The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has shown its to­tal weak­ness by hand­ing over ex­ec­u­tive power to Congress in the most hu­mil­i­at­ing way,” Medvedev wrote on Face­book.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the top Demo­crat in the Se­nate, took his own shot on Twit­ter, call­ing the bill “a model for the fu­ture” that shows both par­ties can work to­gether “to rein in” Trump “when he veers off track.”

The law marks an un­usual move by Congress to tie the pres­i­dent’s hands on for­eign pol­icy.

Trump did not want to sur­ren­der that author­ity, and in his le­gal state­ment ac­com­pa­ny­ing the bill sign­ing, he laid the ground­work for po­ten­tially chal­leng­ing the law down the road.

Trump called some parts of the law “clearly un­con­sti­tu­tional,” although he said he would “ex­pect to honor” its key pro­vi­sions.

“While I fa­vor tough mea­sures to pun­ish and de­ter ag­gres­sive and desta­bi­liz­ing be­hav­ior by Iran, North Korea, and Rus­sia, this leg­is­la­tion is sig­nif­i­cantly flawed,” he wrote.

Some parts of the law “dis­place the Pres­i­dent’s ex­clu­sive con­sti­tu­tional author­ity to rec­og­nize for­eign gov­ern­ments” while oth­ers ex­ceed Congress’ author­ity by im­pos­ing time lim­its on the ex­ec­u­tive branch, the sign­ing state­ment said.

Trump wrote that he would none­the­less honor the law’s re­quire­ment that he sub­mit to a con­gres­sional re­view be­fore ter­mi­nat­ing any sanc­tions. He pledged to en­force the law “in a man­ner con­sis­tent with the Pres­i­dent’s con­sti­tu­tional author­ity to con­duct for­eign re­la­tions.”

John Bies, who served eight years in the Jus­tice Depart­ment dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, said the ob­jec­tions in Trump’s state­ment ap­peared fairly stan­dard, even if their tone was “a lit­tle blunter and more di­rect” than prior ad­min­is­tra­tions might have used. But he did not ex­pect it would af­fect how Trump en­forces the new law.

Wal­ter Dellinger, who headed the Of­fice of Le­gal Coun­sel in the Depart­ment of Jus­tice dur­ing the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion, agreed, call­ing the rhetoric “some­what ex­ag­ger­ated” but stan­dard and “un­likely to di­min­ish the ef­fec­tive­ness of the law.”

In a separate news re­lease, in which Trump made the re­mark about na­tional unity, he lashed out at Congress in more col­lo­quial terms than in the for­mal sign­ing state­ment.

He said the new law would make it harder for the U.S. to “strike good deals for the Amer­i­can peo­ple, and will drive China, Rus­sia, and North Korea much closer to­gether.”

He also drew a sharp dis­tinc­tion among the three coun­tries sanc­tioned by the law.

On Rus­sia, he said that “we hope there will be co­op­er­a­tion between our two coun­tries on ma­jor global is­sues so that th­ese sanc­tions will no longer be nec­es­sary.”

By con­trast, re­fer­ring to Iran and North Korea, he spoke of a “clear mes­sage” that “the Amer­i­can peo­ple will not tol­er­ate their dan­ger­ous and desta­bi­liz­ing be­hav­ior.”

Il­lus­trat­ing the gap between the White House and con­gres­sional Repub­li­can lead­ers on the issue, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (RWis.) made no such dis­tinc­tion, say­ing that the “sanc­tions di­rectly tar­get the de­struc­tive and desta­bi­liz­ing ac­tiv­i­ties of Iran, Rus­sia, and North Korea.”

The new law is “a pow­er­ful mes­sage to our ad­ver­saries that they will be held ac­count­able for their ac­tions,” Ryan said.

Trump took a char­ac­ter­is­tic shot at Congress, not­ing law­mak­ers’ fail­ure to re­peal the Af­ford­able Care Act “af­ter seven years of talk­ing,” and con­trast­ing his his­tory of hav­ing “built a truly great com­pany worth many bil­lions of dol­lars.”

The votes in Congress, 98 to 2 in the Se­nate and 419 to 3 in the House, were strong signs that law­mak­ers do not trust Trump to stand up to Putin, whom Trump has re­peat­edly praised, amid the widen­ing fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion into pos­si­ble co­or­di­na­tion last year between Trump’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign and Moscow.

Even be­fore Trump signed the mea­sure into law, its pas­sage sparked a harsh re­ac­tion in Moscow.

Putin an­nounced last week that the United States would need to shed 755 per­son­nel, in­clud­ing U.S. diplo­mats, from its em­bassy and con­sulates in Rus­sia. Pres­i­dent Obama ex­pelled 35 Rus­sian diplo­mats, said to be spies, from the United States in De­cem­ber.

Trump has yet to voice ob­jec­tions to Putin’s ac­tions, though mem­bers of his ad­min­is­tra­tion have.

Zach Gib­son Pool Photo

Olga Malt­seva AFP/Getty Im­ages

BOTH PAR­TIES in Congress are wary of Rus­sia and Pres­i­dent Trump’s open ad­mi­ra­tion for its pres­i­dent, Vladimir Putin, cen­ter.

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