Behind the Scenes

Trump Admin. Lobbied Lawmakers to Weaken Russia Sanctions

Trump officials met with key leadership and committee staff to push their case against a Senate bill that could weaken the president’s role in sanction enforcement.

Trump administration officials huddled privately on Capitol Hill last week as part of a bid to weaken legislation that would slap new sanctions on Russia and Iran, The Daily Beast has learned.

A top Treasury Department official met with House leadership staffers and committee aides last Thursday to discuss changing a key component of the Senate bill which was sent to the House for approval after a procedural violation stalled it for weeks, two congressional aides with knowledge of the meeting told The Daily Beast.

The official, John E. Smith, the director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control and a career official in the Treasury Department, which oversees the implementation of foreign sanctions, met last Thursday with staff from the offices of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, as well as the Foreign Affairs and Financial Services committees.

Representatives for Pelosi, McCarthy and Hoyer did not respond to requests for comment.

“The net effect of the changes [the Trump administration] wants would certainly weaken one of the legislation’s most important components,” the aide said.

A White House spokeswoman declined to comment on the meeting, saying she would neither confirm nor deny a meeting of Treasury officials. A Treasury spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The bill—which was approved overwhelmingly on a 98-2 vote in the Senate—would slap new sanctions on Russia and codify existing ones over its election meddling and incursions into eastern Europe, and would give Congress the authority to review any attempts by the executive branch to unilaterally roll back or ramp up the sanctions. It would also impose new sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missile program.

But the Trump administration has argued that the key congressional review provision of the Senate-passed legislation would inappropriately tie the hands of the administration. Administration officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have warned that slapping new sanctions on Russia would handicap their desire to repair the relationship between the two nations.

While any president would likely resist efforts to cede so much power to Congress, the aide said recent efforts of the part of the Trump administration to intervene in the legislative process are significant due to President Trump’s tiptoeing around the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, as well as the four congressional probes and special counsel investigation into the matter. Investigators are also looking into whether Trump associates colluded with Russian operatives to tip the scales of the election.

Congressional leaders had hoped the legislation would be on the president’s desk by the time he left last week for the G-20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, where he met face-to-face with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Supporters of new sanctions argued that it would send a strong message to Russia over its interference in the U.S. election in advance of the highly anticipated Trump-Putin bilateral.

The Senate-passed bill almost immediately faced a procedural logjam when it was sent to the House last month. Rep. Kevin Brady, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the Senate bill was being held up because of a constitutional violation: that legislation dealing with revenue must originate in the House.

The move caused McCarthy to issue an ultimatum to the Senate: send us a revised bill, or we’ll write our own. Before the Senate left town for the July 4 recess, the new bill—which contained technical changes and no weakening of the sanctions, according to senators briefed on the final version—was sent over to the House under unanimous consent.

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Democrats were worried that the delay—though simply procedural—would allow House Republicans, consulting with the White House, to water down the Senate provisions that cede ultimate authority to Congress.

“The only question is whether the House leadership would capitulate to the president. And I hope that doesn’t happen for the same reason that the Senate felt it necessary to insist on the maintenance of these sanctions. We should maintain the same policy in the House,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told The Daily Beast last month as the House was awaiting the Senate-passed bill.

Trump has criticized the Obama administration’s reluctance to confront Russian meddling more directly, but he has routinely referred to the Russia probes as “fake news” and a “hoax.” During a news conference last week alongside the Polish president, Trump said “nobody really knows for sure” whether Russia interfered in the electoral process. In a separate remark, Trump said “I think it was Russia” but “it was probably others also.”

Both Democrats and Republicans have continued to put pressure on both the House as well as the Trump administration to get behind the sanctions.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the former chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Daily Beast last month that “once it gets to the House, nobody wants to vote for tamer sanctions.” Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce was eager to resolve the procedural issue and move forward with the sanctions.

“There has been no flag given to us by the administration on this legislation. There might be some behind-the-scenes activities that are taking place. There may well be. But we have no direct flags from the administration on the legislation,” Corker told reporters before the congressional recess. “Senate Republicans have no issue whatsoever. We’re ready to move on. … There are people who would love to see this not happen. … Royce has been over to our office every day this week trying to get it passed like it is—every word of it, just like it is.”

Despite the bipartisan desire to reach a solution, the Trump administration has not taken an official position on the legislation, which would likely face a presidential veto if the congressional review language is not stripped from the bill.

“The bottom line is, if Donald Trump wants to do something about Russia and Russia meddling, instead of just saying, ‘Obama didn't do enough’—support our sanctions bill,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said last month on ABC’s This Week.

“I'll tell you this, I hope Paul Ryan will step up to the plate,” Schumer added. “With Russia meddling in our elections, that's serious, serious stuff. If he passes it, and Trump vetoes it, it will be overridden by Democrats and Republicans.”

A spokeswoman for Ryan did not return a request for comment.