OUCH

Trump Forced to Bite the Hand That Fed Him: Russia

The president reluctantly signed a bill limiting his ability to lift sanctions on Moscow—and blamed Capitol Hill for focusing on foreign policy instead of health care.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty

President Donald Trump reluctantly approved a raft of new sanctions on Russia, calling the new law an overreach by Congress, and sending the message to Moscow that this wasn’t his idea.

“This bill makes it harder for the United States to strike good deals for the American people, and will drive China, Russia, and North Korea much closer together,” Trump said in a statement after signing the legislation into law.

He even called parts of it “unconstitutional,” in its attempts to limit his ability to lift or loosen sanctions, and slammed Congress for venturing into foreign policy, pointing to “seven years” of failed efforts to reform health care.

“I built a truly great company worth many billions of dollars,” he said, adding, “I can make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress.”

The law is aimed at punishing Moscow for attempting to influence the 2016 presidential election campaign, as well as Russia’s military adventurism, annexing Crimea and invading eastern Ukraine, and propping up the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Provisions of the law also punish Iran and North Korea for engaging in actions like Tehran’s support of Hezbollah and Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

The legislation passed both houses of Congress with overwhelming majorities, leaving Trump little choice but to sign it, especially against the continuing drama of multiple investigations into his campaign and its allegedly improper ties to Russia.

But his public reluctance paints the Trump White House as good cop to a Congressional bad cop, at the very least sending mixed messages to Moscow, and at worst, exposing a gulf between adversaries to exploit.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson added to that impression by taking an apologist stance in comments Tuesday about Russia’s imminent expulsion of 755 U.S. diplomats, announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“He didn’t react when the two dachas were taken away in December. He didn’t react when 35 diplomats were sent home. He waited,” Tillerson said, describing the actions taken by the outgoing Obama administration over Russian election meddling. “And now this action came on top of that, and I think from his perspective and how he looks in the eyes of his own people, he felt he had to do something.”

The action was announced by Putin on Sunday in response to Congress’ action -- but before Trump signed the bill -- possibly Moscow’s way of signaling that it doesn’t like the action but doesn’t blame the Trump White House.

Tillerson said he’d be discussing the issue with his Russian counterpart on the sidelines of a conference in Manila this weekend.

“I think the American people want the two most powerful nuclear nations in the world to have a better relationship,” he said.

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The sanctions bill requires a congressional review period of 30 days before Trump can take certain actions like easing or lifting sanctions or taking individuals off a sanctions list. That gives Congress time to vote to object to whatever he’s about to do – something one senior GOP staffer explained they could do anyway if the leaders of both bodies agree, but the law will now require the White House to wait for their possible objection. The staffer spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss the bill by name.

Trump, whose administration fought behind the scenes to strip the congressional review provision from the legislation, called it a possible drag on his team’s ability to negotiate quickly, and in private.

“My Administration particularly expects the Congress to refrain from using this flawed bill to hinder our important work with European allies to resolve the conflict in Ukraine, and from using it to hinder our efforts to address any unintended consequences it may have for American businesses, our friends, or our allies,” his statement said.

That’s a reference to the practice of the White House issuing exemptions on a case-by-case or industry-wide basis to sanctions in the form of “licences” to U.S. businesses that find their dealings halted or slowed by sanctions.

Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), hailed the new law’s provisions to counter Russian propaganda and disinformation globally, particularly through providing funding to the State Department’s Global Engagement Center. A staffer for Portman said he was particularly troubled that the State Department hadn’t yet requested roughly $60 million in funds set aside this year, nor a matching allocation for next year for the State Department’s counter-propaganda arm, as first reported by Politico.

Portman and Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) had co-authored that portion of the legislation. “Congress did our part, now it’s up to the administration to pick up the ball and run with it,” said Murphy in a statement.

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Sunday threatened Moscow would seek revenge if Trump signed what he called “completely weird and unacceptable legislation,” into law.

“If the U.S. side decides to move further towards further deterioration, we will answer. We will respond in kind. We will mirror this. We will retaliate,” he said, in an interview on ABC News’ This Week.  

Just a few hours later, the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C., tweeted the news that 755 U.S. diplomats had to leave Russia come September, dramatically paring down U.S. operations there.

The Russian embassy in the U.S. had also responded to passage of the bill via tweet, saying that, "Washington still doesn't get the fact that pressure never works against @Russia, bilateral relations can hardly be improved by sanctions."