Trump Administration Baffles and Enrages Lawmakers With Latest Punt on Russia Sanctions

The administration announced that no new punishments were needed because the mere threat of punishment was doing enough.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Lawmakers were blindsided and outraged on Monday after the Trump administration said it would neither announce nor implement new sanctions against Russia.

After briefing senators in a classified setting, the State Department announced that the sanctions regime currently in place was acting as a “deterrent” against Russian aggression and that, therefore, new measures will “not need to be imposed” as required under the law.

The announcement caught lawmakers off guard, including those who co-authored the bipartisan Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) last year. That bill passed in large part to punish Russia for its efforts to influence the U.S. presidential election in 2016. That it was put on the backburner left some on Capitol Hill with the impression, once more, that the Trump administration felt indifferent toward the Kremlin’s influence campaign.

“When the Congress voted for this, the whole point of it was to slap sanctions on these Russian companies that interfered with our election and are doing all kinds of other things,” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Daily Beast in an interview. “The legislation itself is not a deterrent if you don’t put teeth behind it. And the teeth behind it are the sanctions.”

Monday’s episode marked the latest chapter in a months-long tug-of-war between Capitol Hill and the White House over a sweeping sanctions law that the administration, critics contend, has refused to fully implement and has dragged its feet in doing so. Congress felt it had forced the president’s hand with the passage of CAATSA by supermajorities in each chamber. A provision of that law required the administration to brief lawmakers on Monday about its efforts to sanction foreign governments and other entities that were continuing to do business with Russian defense and intelligence firms that the State Department publicly named in October.

On Monday afternoon, administration officials gathered with senators on Capitol Hill to detail their plans for implementing the sanctions. The session was clouded in secrecy, with lawmakers refusing to reveal details that would potentially compromise confidential information.

But as those briefings wrapped up, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert released a statement saying the administration determined that new sanctions were not needed since it was estimated “that foreign governments have abandoned planned or announced purchases of several billion dollars in Russian defense acquisitions.”

Under the legislation, foreign governments and other entities that were doing business with the sanctioned Russian firms can show that they are winding down their financial relationships and, therefore, not be subjected to additional sanctions.

Nauert’s statement left open the possibility that the sanctions against non-Russian entities doing business with Kremlin-aligned defense and intelligence firms could be imposed, but a spokesperson said that the administration would not “preview” those actions—drawing the ire of those who authored the sanctions regime.

“The impetus for passing this last summer, at least when it comes to Russia, was the election interference. That was the whole point,” a congressional source involved in crafting the legislation told The Daily Beast. “If Trump and his people won’t use the law the way it was intended—to go after election interference—then the major purpose for the legislation is being sidestepped.”

Many Republican lawmakers—particularly on the House side, where the foreign affairs committee was not briefed by the administration—were not directly aware of the State Department’s decision prior to it being announced. But they said they still support the full implementation of the sanctions regime.

Others appeared confident that, if necessary, the administration would announce new actions.

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“This is when sanctions season begins, and so they’ll be rolling them out as there are violations,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “They don’t give advance notice when they do those. So they’ll roll them out.”

The decision to neither impose nor publicly announce sanctions left other lawmakers worried that the Trump administration had both ignored the will of Congress and abdicated its responsibility to hold Russia accountable for its destabilizing actions in the U.S. and eastern Europe.

“The Congress could not have spoken more clearly and more forcefully and, I think, could not have handed the president a better formed tool with which to make clear to the Russians our deep displeasure about the attack on our democracy,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. “And I find the president’s continued refusal to take action in response maddening.”

While the law passed by Congress does not directly name entities suspected of involvement in Russia’s influence campaign during the 2016 election, it was crafted as a penalty for sectors of the Russian government—primarily defense and intelligence—that remain critically important for Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a letter explaining the administration’s decision on Monday that was obtained by The Daily Beast, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) that only “transactions [with the Russian defense and intelligence firms] determined to be significant were sanctionable.”

The law also mandated that the Treasury Department produce a report by Monday on Russian oligarchs and their ties to Putin. That report was submitted to Congress but it remains classified, three sources with direct knowledge of the matter told The Daily Beast. The Treasury Department released an unclassified version later Monday night that lists Russian oligarchs in addition to Putin’s senior aides and top Russian political figures, but notes that those individuals were not being sanctioned simply because they appear on the list.

Though CAATSA passed with overwhelming majorities in Congress, President Donald Trump only reluctantly signed it into law after arguing that it too stringently handicapped his authority. Top officials tried unsuccessfully last year to weaken a core provision of the legislation, as The Daily Beast first reported.

The State Department and Treasury Department missed a critical Oct. 1 deadline to issue guidance on how it was implementing the sanctions. When lawmakers began asking questions about the delay, the administration suddenly went dark, according to members of Congress engaged directly in those talks. It was only after intense pressure from Capitol Hill that the State Department released a list of Russian entities targeted under the sanctions law—26 days after it was due.

The president’s Russia policies have been under a microscope as he continues to downplay the numerous investigations into the Kremlin’s election meddling and potential collusion between his campaign and Russian operatives. Lawmakers have also ramped up their criticisms of the president after it was revealed last week that he tried to fire special counsel Robert Mueller in June.

But the administration has received high marks as of late—even from Democrats—on Russia-related policies including its rollout of the Magnitsky and Global Magnitsky sanctions, which target human-rights abusers in Russia and worldwide. Additionally, the administration recently approved a massive lethal weapons sale to Ukraine to support groups fighting Russian-backed separatists.

On Monday night, just hours after announcing that the Trump administration would not be imposing new sanctions against Russia, Nauert put out another statement condemning Russia for conducting “unsafe… military practices” over the Black Sea.

“This is but the latest example of Russian military activities disregarding international norms and agreements,” the statement read. “We call on Russia to cease these unsafe actions that increase the risk of miscalculation, danger to aircrew on both sides, and midair collisions.”