When Democrats talk about President Donald Trump and Russia, they usually unload on the White House with both barrels.
But that changed last week, when lawmakers—some of whom have been the most critical of Trump and his Kremlin-friendly actions—offered effusive praise for his administration after it issued new Russia-related sanctions in close consultation with Congress.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), a possible 2020 presidential contender, told The Daily Beast that the new designations were “a good sign and a good step in the right direction.”
The overall effort caught many lawmakers by surprise, after months of accusing the administration of stonewalling them over similar sanctions that the White House opposed from the start.
That’s because, despite its stated goal to rebuild U.S.-Russia relations, the administration last week sanctioned five Russian and Chechen individuals under the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 law that punishes alleged human rights abusers by freezing their assets and banning them from seeking visas. The sanctions targeted Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, over allegations of corruption and extrajudicial killings. The move drew a rebuke from the Kremlin, which called the U.S.’ actions “illegal” and “unfriendly” and said it further degrades the strained U.S.-Russia relationship.
Putin has condemned the Magnitsky Act and the resulting sanctions since it was passed, and he retaliated for the effort by banning Americans from adopting Russian children. The issue gained an international spotlight recently when it was revealed that Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, met last year at Trump Tower with Russians alleged to have Kremlin ties. The younger Trump initially said the meeting centered around the Russian adoption issue, but it was later revealed that he took the meeting after he was promised damaging information on Hillary Clinton.
Throughout Trump’s first year in office, lawmakers have noticed a determination on the part of some administration officials to get tougher on Russia in light of its destabilizing actions in eastern Europe and its efforts to meddle in the 2016 U.S. election. But Trump himself, they have argued, is preventing a whole-of-government approach to counter Russian aggression. From his tiptoeing around the issue of Russia’s election meddling to his slow-walking of a sweeping new Russia sanctions law he was forced to sign in August, his posturing has often conflicted with that of his top officials, who have confronted Russia more directly.
In many ways, the Trump administration is on autopilot on Russia policy despite the commander-in-chief. In addition to the Magnitsky sanctions, the administration has taken steps in recent days aimed at countering Russian aggression. Last week, top officials approved a lethal defensive weapons sale to Ukraine, where the military is fighting Russian-backed separatists. The White House also unveiled its National Security Strategy, in which it names Russia as a “revisionist power” and suggests the country is an “adversary” that aims to “shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests.”
These developments run counter to the views expressed by Trump himself throughout his nascent political career. Trump has praised Putin and suggested that he took the Russian leader at his word when he told Trump that Russia had not meddled in the 2016 U.S. election—only to walk it back later, affirming that he trusts the U.S. intelligence community’s January assessment on the matter.
Yuri Chaika, Russia’s prosecutor general, has worked for years to undermine the Magnitsky Act and is believed to have spearheaded some of Russia’s meddling efforts in the American election as a way to fight back against the 2012 law. But U.S. sanctions have now hit Chaika personally.
On Friday, the U.S. took further actions under the Global Magnitsky Act, which former President Barack Obama signed into law last December as an extension of the original Magnitsky Act to include human rights abusers worldwide—not just in Russia. But the Trump administration, acting under the Global Magnitsky law for the first time since it was signed, levied sanctions at least against one Russian: Chaika’s son, Artem. The State Department alleges that he “has leveraged his father’s position and ability to award his subordinates to unfairly win state-owned assets and contracts and put pressure on business competitors.”
Last week’s swift and decisive actions left Trump’s critics on Capitol Hill stunned. The same administration that was slow-walking new Russia sanctions enacted in August did an about-face by working closely with Congress on the Magnitsky sanctions. The praise heaped upon Trump and his administration has come from unlikely sources: Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“I want to give the administration credit. The process on both Russia-specific and Global Magnitsky—we, throughout the process, were engaged with,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told The Daily Beast. “I knew how the reviews were being conducted. We had very close relationships. It was treated with the highest degree of priority among the administration. And they acted correctly.”
That was not the case for the August sanctions, known as the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Cardin and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, were left in the dark for weeks when they tried to inquire about why the State Department blew past an Oct. 1 deadline to issue guidance on the sanctions. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) feared it was another example of the administration showing its “blind spot” when it comes to Russia. But as Congress prepared to leave town for the holidays, Trump’s critics had nothing but kind words for the administration on its latest Russia-related actions.
“I think it’s important to recognize positive progress whenever it happens,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) told The Daily Beast. “Even though I disagree with the administration broadly on what I view as their failure to make human rights a higher priority and to take more decisive action on the sanctions powers that Congress—on a very strong bipartisan basis—gave them, I do think it’s an important step forward that the Trump administration has designated under the Magnitsky Act. I hope that will be followed by stronger steps.”
The CAATSA sanctions—which Trump reluctantly signed into law after his administration tried to weaken the sanctions in the face of overwhelming congressional opposition in both chambers—were enacted in retaliation for Russia’s incursions into eastern Europe and its meddling in the 2016 election, something that Trump often dismisses as an excuse for Hillary Clinton’s election loss.
“I’m trying to be as positive as I can about what steps there are by the administration that I think do push back on Russia’s illegal and unconscionable invasion of and occupation in Crimea and continued meddling in the affairs of Ukraine in the east, and the designation that have happened under the Magnitsky Act,” Coons added.
But Coons and his colleagues were unable to explain the differences in how the administration approached the Magnitsky sanctions and the CAATSA sanctions. While there was a slight delay on the Magnitsky actions, the Foreign Relations Committee did not make a fuss over it because administration officials were in constant contact over what they said were technical delays due to legal issues. The committee’s requests for information about the CAATSA delay were “mostly unexplained,” according to Sean Bartlett, a spokesman for Cardin, while the administration “was more forthcoming about the [Magnitsky] delays, keeping us apprised of progress or issues that came up.”
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) was willing to look past the belated CAATSA measures due to the law’s complexity. Corker told The Daily Beast last week that unlike CAATSA—under which the State Department and Treasury Department must take into consideration U.S. companies that might be caught up in the sanctions—the Magnitsky “format is laid out—all you’ve got to do is name [the individuals] and it’s done.”
The State Department has chalked up its delay on the CAATSA sanctions to much of what Corker explained. But the department has signalled that it also wants to avoid the side effects that result when lawmakers such as Cardin and McCain—who co-authored the Global Magnitsky Act—go public with concerns that they’re being stonewalled by top administration officials.
“We are committed to engaging with Congress on their priorities. We welcome and appreciate the information provided by Congress and will continue to consider credible, specific information provided by these key partners,” a State Department spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “We encourage recommendations to be submitted privately to avoid unintended negative consequences.”
That was likely a reference to both McCain’s and Cardin’s public threats against the administration after the Oct. 1 delay. McCain, from his powerful perch atop the Armed Services Committee, told The Daily Beast he would continue to block Trump’s nominees to key positions, while Cardin suggested holding up defense appropriations bills until the executive branch complies with the law. The House Foreign Affairs Committee also joined the fray, with Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the panel’s top Democrat, writing to Trump over the “baffling and unacceptable” delay which “sends a terrible message about American leadership on the global stage.”