President Donald Trump’s willingness to crack down on Russia will be seriously tested come Monday.
Trump faces a major deadline to use the Russia sanctions power that Congress overwhelmingly voted to give him — and it’s anybody’s guess as to whether he’ll comply on time after missing the last deadline.
Scrutiny is high, amid lingering suspicion of Trump’s eagerness to mend fences with Russia and with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation still digging into election meddling by Moscow. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle remain keen to get tough on Vladimir Putin’s government.
And they have reason to worry about whether the popular sanctions package Trump reluctantly signed in August will be implemented just as hesitantly. The Russia provisions of the bill were designed as a response to Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 election, which the president himself has downplayed.
Furthermore, the last time Trump’s administration confronted a deadline to set in motion penalties against Putin’s government, it took more than three weeks — and a nudge from Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) — for Trump’s team to comply.
An even more critical moment arrives Monday. The Treasury Department is required to begin imposing sanctions against entities doing business with Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors as well as to produce a hotly anticipated list of oligarchs maintaining close ties to Putin. Implementing the law robustly would risk harming the relationship Trump has tried to cultivate with Putin — and any delay would mean snubbing Congress’ authority.
Lawmakers in both parties don’t want the White House to drag its feet this time.
“Am I confident [that Trump will meet the deadline]”? asked Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “I’m hopeful.”
The administration “should follow the law as it was passed by Congress,” he added.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, also said he holds out hope for speedy compliance from the administration.
“But so far,” Coons complained to reporters, “the president has not used tools the Senate gave him, 98 to 2, to send a clear and unmistakable sign to Vladimir Putin and Russia” about the consequences for meddling in other countries’ elections.
While Trump has resisted the conclusion reached by multiple U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to assist his campaign, some in his administration acknowledge that the Kremlin is preparing to attempt to replicate its success.
White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster publicly acknowledged last month that Russia is showing signs of trying to upend this May’s Mexican election, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions testified in November that preventing Russian disruption of the 2018 midterm elections is an “important” goal.
Whether the administration can be persuaded to use the full extent of the authority Congress gave it last year, however, is another matter. The sanctions due Monday under the bill that Trump signed in August can be delayed or waived, but any waiver would have to come with a certification to lawmakers that Russia has made major progress in cutting back on cyber-meddling.
Trump called Corker in July to blast it as a bad deal. When Trump did ultimately sign the bill into law, the president added a statement warning that it included “a number of clearly unconstitutional provisions.”
Those signals kept Democrats on high alert for slow-walking of the Russia penalties. Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations panel, joined House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and two other senior Democrats on Friday in a public reminder to Trump about the full extent of Monday’s sanctions deadline.
In addition to the report on Putin-linked oligarchs and imposition of sanctions on those doing business with Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors, they noted, the Treasury Department is also expected to release a report on the consequences of adding sanctions to Moscow’s sovereign debt.
The peril that Russian “actions pose to our democratic institutions and those of our allies is growing in intensity and urgency,” Cardin and Hoyer warned in a letter also signed by the top Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, New York Rep. Eliot Engel.
“You have a constitutional responsibility to defend those institutions,” they told Trump.
Cardin, whose staff released an extensive report this month slamming Russia for subverting democracies across Europe, vowed in an interview to keep pressing the issue if the Trump administration doesn’t comply on time with Monday’s deadlines.
“We’ve been doing informal conversations” with the administration, focused primarily on the defense and intelligence sanctions, as well as public pressure, Cardin said. “So you can rest assured that if we don’t have a satisfactory response by Monday, I will be out there asking … to get something done. And I’d expect to have Sen. Corker’s help.”
Corker — a sometime antagonist of Trump who praised the president’s “unpredictability” last week in remarks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland — has made clear he won’t let the Russia sanctions bill he helped author drop off the radar.
When the administration missed its October deadline, the Tennessean told reporters he would “get on the phone with someone” at the State Department within 24 hours to shake loose the information — and did. The day after Corker made his vow, the administration released guidance on entities potentially subject to the sanctions due Monday.
“We remain in close communication with the administration regarding implementation of this important legislation and are in the process of scheduling a briefing with State and Treasury officials,” a Senate Foreign Relations Committee aide said by email.
The State Department referred a question on Monday’s sanctions deadlines to the Treasury Department, which did not return a request for comment.
Treasury took one key step forward on Friday by broadening sanctions against Russia imposed in the wake of its annexation of Crimea, hitting 21 individuals and nine entities. Those penalties, first imposed before the passage of last year’s sanctions bill, were then codified into law by it.
Cardin described the October sanctions holdup as a consequence of “a younger administration” finding its footing. “Now they’ve had more experience on these things,” he said.