Trump blasts sanctions bill, but he signs it
He says Russia legislation impedes executive powers
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed what he called a “seriously flawed” bill imposing new sanctions on Russia, pressured by his Republican Party not to move on his own toward a warmer relationship with Moscow in light of Russian actions.
The legislation is aimed at punishing Moscow for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and for its military aggression in Ukraine and Syria, where the Kremlin has backed President Bashar Assad. The law also imposes financial sanctions against Iran and North Korea.
Trump said the law will “punish and deter bad behavior by the rogue regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang” and enhance existing sanctions on Moscow.
The president had been reluctant to proceed with the bill, even after it was revised to include some changes that American and European companies sought to ensure that business deals were not stifled by new sanctions. He had expressed frustration over Congress’ ability to limit or override the power of the White House on national security matters, saying that it is complicating efforts to coordinate with allies — a sentiment he expressed in Wednesday’s signing statement.
In the statement, he accused Congress of overstepping its constitutional bounds, impeding his ability to negotiate with foreign countries and lacking any ability to strike deals.
“The bill remains seriously flawed — particularly because it encroaches on the executive branch’s authority to negotiate,” Trump said.
“Congress could not even negotiate a healthcare bill
after seven years of talking,” he continued, referring to lawmakers’ recent failure to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, as he and other Republicans have promised for years. “As president, I can make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress.”
Still, he said, “despite its problems, I am signing this bill for the sake of national unity.”
Last week, the House overwhelmingly backed the bill, 419-3, and the Senate quickly followed, 98-2. Those margins guaranteed that Congress would be able to beat back any veto attempt.
Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in the 2016 campaign with the intention of tipping the election in his favor.
He has blasted the federal investigation as a “witch hunt.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called the president’s concerns over the sanctions bill misplaced.
“[Russian President] Vladimir Putin and his regime must pay a real price for attacking our democracy, violating human rights, occupying Crimea and destabilizing Ukraine,” McCain said. “Going forward, I hope the president will be as vocal about Russia’s aggressive behavior as he was about his concerns with this legislation.”
Trump’s talk of extending a hand of cooperation to Putin has been met by skeptical lawmakers looking to limit his leeway. The new measure targets Russia’s energy sector as part of legislation that prevents Trump from easing sanctions on Moscow without congressional approval.
Russia wasn’t pleased. Putin responded Sunday by announcing the U.S. would have to cut 755 of its embassy and consular staff in Russia. And Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said in a Facebook post Wednesday that “Trump’s administration has demonstrated total impotence by surrendering its executive authority to Congress in the most humiliating way.”
Konstantin Kosachev, who heads the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of the Russian parliament, said the bill Trump signed “leaves no chance for a constructive cooperation with Russia.”
The congressional review section of the bill that Trump objects to was a key feature for many members of Congress.
Trump will be required to send a report explaining why he wants to suspend or terminate a particular set of the sanctions on Russia. Lawmakers would then have 30 days to decide whether to allow that.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson echoed the president’s sentiments that the measure poses more diplomatic hindrances than solutions.
“Neither the president nor I are very happy about that,” Tillerson said Tuesday. “We were clear that we didn’t think that was going to be helpful to our efforts, but that’s the decision they made.”
Sean Kane, a former official with the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said President Barack Obama’s administration had sought similar wiggle room when negotiating Iran sanctions with lawmakers.
“These issues have come up before where an administration wants flexibility in place in a deal that would potentially lift sanctions, and Congress wants to tie the administration’s hands in some ways,” said Kane, who now works at the law firm Hughes Hubbard & Reed.
Trump said Congress had “included a number of clearly unconstitutional provisions.”
But constitutional law experts said Congress rightfully asserted its constitutional powers to serve as a check on the executive branch, even on matters of national security.
Michael Glennon, a constitutional and national security expert from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, said Trump’s statement contained a “gross misreading” of the case law he cited to bolster his claim that the congressional review provision had unconstitutionally robbed him of the power to negotiate.
“That’s obviously a misguided interpretation of his constitutional authority,” Glennon said. “Congress has very broad authority over foreign commerce — it’s explicitly given the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations. It could have, if it desired, imposed those sanctions without giving the president any waiver authority whatsoever.”
Vice President Mike Pence, returning Wednesday from a trip to eastern Europe, touted Trump’s signing of the sanctions bill as evidence that the White House strongly rejects Russian meddling and misbehavior around the world.
“His decision to sign the Iran sanctions bill — or the Iran-North Korea-Russia sanctions bill — I think is reflective of a desire to make sure that freedom-loving countries around the world know that we are with them and that Russia and the rogue regimes in North Korea and Iran know that this president and this administration expect a change,” Pence said.
Though Trump signed the bill Wednesday in the face of mounting bipartisan pressure, Pence said the original “concerns the president had about the process and the efforts the administration took to increase flexibility don’t change the fact that the direction of these sanctions is completely consistent to the direction that President Trump has set.”
Last winter, just before Trump was sworn in, a bipartisan group of senators unveiled a bill designed to go beyond the punishments already levied against Russia by the Obama administration and to demonstrate to Trump that forcefully responding to Moscow’s election interference wasn’t a partisan issue.
Action on Russia sanctions didn’t pick up until late May, when Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, threw his support behind the effort. The bill underwent revisions to avoid inadvertently undercutting U.S. firms or interfering with how European allies acquire energy.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle celebrated the passage and signing.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said the bill sends a “powerful message to our adversaries that they will be held accountable for their actions.”
But the House’s top Democrat said Trump’s statement calling the bill “seriously flawed” raises questions about whether his administration will follow the law.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said the Republican-led Congress must not allow the White House to “wriggle out of its duty to impose these sanctions for Russia’s brazen assault on our democracy.”
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a driving force behind the Russia sanctions bill, talks to reporters Wednesday on Capitol Hill.