Won’t Back Down
House Forces President Trump Into a Corner on Russia
With a 419-3 vote approving new sanctions, the House is signaling it doesn’t trust the president’s judgment on Russia—and setting up a potentially awkward veto threat.
The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly, 419 to 3, on Tuesday to approve legislation that slaps new sanctions on Russia, Iran, and North Korea, while handicapping President Donald Trump’s authority to lift or strengthen the sanctions.
As the Trump administration seeks improved relations with Moscow, the sweeping bipartisan margin by which the legislation passed the House signaled to the White House that members of Congress were not so quick to let Russia off the hook for meddling in the 2016 election and annexing Crimea in 2014—and that they don’t trust the president’s judgment on potential changes to the sanctions.
The Trump administration had been lobbying members of Congress to scrap a provision in the legislation that would require Congress to review any unilateral attempts by the president to lift or ramp up the sanctions. During the July 4 recess, the director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which implements and enforces sanctions, met with House leadership aides to lobby them against limiting the administration’s power.
Lawmakers essentially forced Trump into a corner by refusing to back down on the congressional review measure, setting up a potentially awkward presidential veto threat and possible congressional override.
The White House has sent muddled messages on its position on the legislation. On Sunday—a day after the House bill was unveiled—White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said “we support where the legislation is now.” But just a day later, on Monday, Sanders said Trump hadn’t decided whether he would sign the bill.
“He’s going to study that legislation and see what the final product looks like,” Sanders told reporters on board Air Force One.
Despite the lack of clarity from the administration, lawmakers were confident that Trump would not veto the legislation, given the near-unanimous support. If more than two-thirds of senators vote in favor of the new bill, it will become veto proof.
“They would have to know that it [a veto] would be overridden. So I don’t think he has much choice but to sign the bill. Of course, a lot of our expectations about this president have proven wrong, but I would be astonished if he tried to veto the bill,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, told The Daily Beast.
Schiff, whose committee is investigating Russian election meddling and the Trump campaign’s potential involvement, said he was heartened that both Democrats and Republicans moved to set up “guardrails around what this administration can do on Russia.” Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX), who is leading the committee’s Russia probe, told The Daily Beast that he assumes the president will sign the bill.
The initial Senate-passed bill hit a snag in the House last month after it was flagged for mundane procedural violations. Over the weekend, House leaders announced a deal had been reached to add North Korea sanctions to the legislation. Given that the Senate version only included sanctions on Russia and Iran, the upper chamber will need to vote on the House bill before it can be sent to the president’s desk.
That sets the table for yet another delay, as Senate leaders have indicated there is no agreement in place on how to move forward with the North Korea sanctions added to the bill.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters on Monday that the White House is “developing a more full understanding of what the bill does.
Corker and his Democratic counterpart on the committee, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), have refused to back down on the congressional review measure, to the ire in particular of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Republicans and Democrats have sent a clear message to the White House that vetoing the bill would be politically toxic amid the president’s refusal to wholly accept the intelligence community’s assessment on Russian election meddling and allegations that his associates colluded with Russian operatives. Trump has denied any such collusion.