CHECKS AND BALANCES

Senators to President Donald Trump: Not So Fast on Russia Sanctions Relief

Proposed legislation seeks to hold the line between the White House and friendlier relations with Russia and Vladimir Putin.

Republican senators are openly defying their party's president, proposing legislation that would limit President Donald Trump's ability to lift sanctions on Russia without their approval.

GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham is leading the latest charge, authoring a bipartisan proposal Wednesday that is modeled after the controls that Congress passed after the Iranian nuclear deal. If passed, The Russia Sanctions Review Act would essentially give Congress a veto over any effort by the Trump White House to relieve economic sanctions imposed on Russia.

"Most people see Russia as deserving to be punished for interfering in our election. And to not punish Russia for interfering in our election would be the worst possible signal to send the Russians—and they're headed to France and Germany next. If they don't pay a price, they're not going to stop this," Graham told The Daily Beast.

Graham is joined in the proposal by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain and Sen. Marco Rubio, both fellow Republican hawks, and Democratic Sens. Ben Cardin, Sherrod Brown and Claire McCaskill.

Under Graham’s proposal, the Trump administration would have to notify Congress, certify that Russia respected the sovereignty of Ukraine, and conclude that Russia had stopped cyber-attacks against America before any sanctions relief would be granted. Congress would also have 120 days to review any sanctions relief proposed by the administration.

There remains serious concern in Republican circles that Trump has been too open to friendlier relations with Russia—his suggestion of moral equivalence between Russian killings and American military actions this weekend raised eyebrows even among his supporters.

After a Fox News host pointed out that Russian President Vladimir Putin has had people killed, Trump replied, “What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?”

Sen. Tom Cotton, a reliable Trump supporter, voiced his disagreement later on: "I wouldn't have characterized President Putin in the way that President Trump did over the weekend.”

While some Republicans might be wary of crossing the Trump White House so early in the president’s term, Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Republicans should keep in mind that presidents always push back against attempts to rein in their powers—and that this legislation merely allows Congress to have a say in sanctions policy.

“The Obama administration, the Bush administration, the Clinton administration… none of them wanted Congress to do anything in regards to executive prerogatives,” Cardin said. “I’ve never met an administration that didn’t want to get rid of the legislative branch of government. But I think Democrats and Republicans will come together.”

Graham’s proposal comes in addition to other, previously-introduced bipartisan legislation that would impose additional sanctions on Russia. These sanctions would make it harder for financial institutions to conduct transactions with Russian military and intelligence agencies.

But backers like Rubio told The Daily Beast that, “just knowing the number of members who are supportive" of sanctions, he thinks there is enough bipartisan support in the Senate for a supermajority that would override any potential Trump veto of new sanctions legislation. But he has not done a formal head count of votes. 67 senators must support a bill in order to override a presidential veto.

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The success of the legislation depends on what ongoing probes into Russian interference conclude, and whether it raises public ire. A number of other committees are continuing to investigate Russia’s conduct: the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is continuing with open hearings on the issue Thursday, while the Senate Intelligence Committee is engaged in a more thorough, private investigation.

American intelligence agencies have already concluded after the election that Russia had tried to interfere with the U.S. presidential election—and many lawmakers are dumbfounded that, before these investigations have even concluded, the Trump White House is open to warmer relations with Putin.

“Vladimir Putin is a thug bent on tearing down democracy—and Russia’s meddling in U.S. institutions is a threat to our national security,” McCaskill said on Wednesday. “Any decision to roll over on sanctions needs to meet a high bar in Congress.”