President Donald Trump Tuesday night signaled his reluctance to enforce congressionally-passed restrictions on Russia.
In signing the massive annual military spending bill, known formally as the National Defense Authorization Act, Trump objected to several measures Congress passed to toughen U.S. policy toward Russia, which U.S. intelligence has assessed interfered in the 2016 election to benefit him.
Several provisions of the bill, Trump wrote in his signing statement — effectively a presidential caveat to new laws – could “potentially dictate the position of the United States in external military and foreign affairs and, in certain instances, direct the conduct of international diplomacy.”
It’s the latest installment in a pattern in which Trump carves out an exception to his typical bellicosity for Russia, even as he describes a federal investigation aimed at uncovering his campaign’s ties to the Kremlin as a politicized fraud.
Among those provisions Trump cited as potentially violative of his authority is section 1239, which directs Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the military to “develop and implement a comprehensive strategy to counter threats by the Russian Federation.”
Subsection A of the requirement, to which Trump also specifically objected, directs the strategy to attribute and defend against “hybrid warfare operations short of traditional armed conflict against the United States and its allies and partners.” In particular, such a strategy should “identify and defend against” Russia’s “use of misinformation, disinformation and propaganda in social and traditional media” – something The Daily Beast, as well as the congressional Russia inquiries, have extensively documented.
The strategy Congress directed also seeks action against “corrupt or illicit financing of political parties, think tanks, media organizations and academic institutions” and “the use of coercive economic tools, including sanctions, market access, cryptocurrencies, and differential pricing, especially in the energy section.” It explicitly seeks unnamed measures to bolster early detection of “hybrid warfare operations by the Russian federation” and to support actions “to support NATO allies and non-NATO partners” – like those in Eastern Europe concerned about Russian irredentism, as seen in Ukraine – “in maintaining their sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
In the signing statement, first reported by USA Today, Trump did not explicitly say he would let those provisions languish. Instead, he asserted his authority to reject them, writing that his administration will “treat these provisions consistent with the President's exclusive constitutional authorities as Commander in Chief and as the sole representative of the Nation in foreign affairs to determine the terms on which recognition is given to foreign sovereigns and conduct the Nation's diplomacy.”
The test will come in mid-April 2018, when the just-signed NDAA requires Mattis and Tillerson, or whomever is then the secretary of state, to submit the strategy document to Congress. Or, perhaps now, they won’t.
Those weren’t the only Russia-related measures in the NDAA Trump called out as faulty.
Section 1231 extends a recent restriction, first enacted after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, against military-to-military cooperation with Russian forces. That was a measure the U.S. military, in January, feared then-national security adviser Mike Flynn wanted the generals to violate in Syria, as The Daily Beast reported in June.
Section 1232 prevents the Pentagon from spending money to do anything “that recognizes the sovereignty of the Russian Federation over Crimea,” absent an explicit justification bearing Mattis’ personal imprimatur.
Section 1069 requires the security agencies to strengthen vetting processes for foreign investments “that could potentially impair the national security of the United States.” Specifically, Congress wants to bolster processes assessing, among other things, “the counterintelligence risks posed by purchases or leases of Federal land.”
Flynn’s guilty plea to special prosecutor Robert Mueller, who is investigating the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russia, stated that last December, Flynn, with the knowledge of the presidential transition team, sought to minimize Russian responses to sanctions approved by Barack Obama that expelled Russian intelligence operatives and repossessed two facilities in Maryland and New York that they used.
Trump didn’t just object to NDAA provisions governing Russia.
He has a problem with measures Congress took to strengthen defense ties to India and Taiwan – the latter occurring after Trump lavished praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping last month in Beijing – as well as strengthening Nigeria’s security apparatus. He called out a measure requiring an “analysis of the adequacy of the existing legal framework” against the Islamic State, a framework that many in Congress believe is strained beyond recognition. And he criticized a section requiring his administration to describe “United States strategic objectives in Somalia,” a theater of war he has escalated, and provide “benchmarks for assessing progress toward such objectives.”