Trump officials take heat for declining Russia sanctions

The Trump administration faced blowback on Capitol Hill Tuesday for declining to implement new sanctions against Russia for interfering in the 2016 presidential election.

The State Department on Monday said it would not immediately levy penalties on entities doing business with Russia’s defense sector, saying that the law passed by Congress last summer has already prevented a windfall of cash from going to Russia.

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“I’d like to know why they’re not doing more,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamHouse Judiciary chair threatens subpoena if DOJ doesn’t supply McCabe memos by Tuesday Rosenstein report gives GOP new ammo against DOJ Graham: There's a 'bureaucratic coup' taking place against Trump MORE (R-S.C.) said of the sanctions. “There may be a good reason, but I don’t want to send anything that could be a signal of weakness.”

Lawmakers last year passed legislation to punish Moscow with a veto-proof majority in both chambers of Congress, forcing President TrumpDonald John TrumpGrassley: Dems 'withheld information' on new Kavanaugh allegation Health advocates decry funding transfer over migrant children Groups plan mass walkout in support of Kavanaugh accuser MORE to sign it.

The law tied Trump’s hands on Russia, limiting his abilities to ease sanctions on the country — and he made clear his unhappiness with it. He called the law “seriously flawed” and said it infringed on his powers under the Constitution.

The State Department faced a Monday deadline under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) to begin imposing sanctions on foreign firms and governments doing large amounts of business with Russia’s defense and intelligence sector. But the law allows for the department to decide against imposing sanctions if companies are winding down their business dealings with Moscow.

Facing criticism, State Department officials sought Tuesday to clarify the decision to not announce new sanctions. They touted months of engagement with countries and companies internationally that they said have already derailed potential business deals with Moscow.

“We have been able to turn off potential deals that equal several billion dollars,” a senior State Department official told reporters. The official said the intent of this Trump administration is “to remind Russia of the cost of its malign activity.”

“It’s important not to focus only on public rollouts as we look at this success of this tool,” the official said.

On Capitol Hill, the sanctions decision amplified the general feeling that the Trump administration is unwilling to aggressively impose penalties on Russia.

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsKavanaugh accuser set to testify Thursday McConnell told Trump criticism of Kavanaugh accuser isn't helpful: report Dems see Kavanaugh saga as playing to their advantage MORE (R-Maine) called the sanctions move “perplexing” during an interview on CNN, pointing to the widespread belief that Moscow will look to interfere in future elections.

Democrats were more scathing in their criticism, with Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillNelson campaign to donate K from Al Franken group to charity 'Kavanaugh' chants erupt at Trump rally in Missouri The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — Kavanaugh, accuser say they’re prepared to testify MORE (D-Mo.) accusing the president of ignoring the sanctions legislation and calling the development “a constitutional crisis.”

Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinOvernight Health Care: Senators target surprise medical bills | Group looks to allow Medicaid funds for substance abuse programs | FDA launches anti-vaping campaign for teens Bipartisan group wants to lift Medicaid restriction on substance abuse treatment More Dems come out in public opposition to Kavanaugh MORE (D-Md.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was still reviewing the administration’s implementation of the bill, but that he was disappointed so far.

“Not one sanction has been announced to date, so yes, I am disappointed there has not been a more aggressive use of the law that Congress passed,” Cardin told reporters.

Peter Harrell, a former State Department official who worked on sanctions policy during the Obama administration, said the department’s decision falls in line with the law, but noted that officials could have sent a “much stronger message” by announcing some sanctions.

“I think the State Department met the minimum legal requirement here,” Harrell said.

State Department officials refused to quantify the deals with Russia they were able to derail or offer any details about their engagements with other countries.

Separately, the Treasury Department was required by midnight Monday under the law to issue a report listing senior Russian officials with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and wealthy Russian oligarchs.

The department released a list of more than 200 Russian oligarchs and officials connected to Putin, noting it was not a sanctions list. The list was compiled using a Forbes article, a fact that Democrats grabbed onto in criticizing the administration.

“I am absolutely disappointed,” said Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenSome employees' personal data revealed in State Department email breach: report Dems seek ways to block Trump support for Saudi-led coalition in Yemen Hillicon Valley: Trump signs off on sanctions for election meddlers | Russian hacker pleads guilty over botnet | Reddit bans QAnon forum | FCC delays review of T-Mobile, Sprint merger | EU approves controversial copyright law MORE (D-N.H.), a Foreign Relations Committee member who helped negotiate the sanctions bill. “They’ve had six months and all they release is a list that they basically copied from Forbes magazine, and they’ve already acknowledged that. It’s unacceptable.”

Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner Mnuchin5 things to know about Trump's escalating trade war with China On The Money: Trump signs first 2019 'minibus' spending package | Mueller probing transactions by Russian organizers of Trump Tower meeting | Stocks brush off trade fears On The Money: Cohen reportedly questioned over Trump dealings with Russia | Trump hails economy | Tells workers to 'start looking' if they want a better job | Internal poll shows tax law backfiring on GOP MORE promised to impose new sanctions on Russia when he came under criticism during a hearing with lawmakers Tuesday morning. The Treasury Department is not required under the law to impose sanctions on the Russian individuals, many of whom are already subject to U.S. sanctions.

“It’s not getting any better, Mr. Secretary,” Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) said at the hearing. “I really think we’re sending the wrong message.”

Still, several Republicans refrained from criticizing the administration, taking more of a wait-and-see approach.

“I’m very invested in this, right,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerPoll: More voters oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination than support it Ford opens door to testifying next week Police arrest nearly two dozen Kavanaugh protesters MORE (R-Tenn.) told reporters, echoing his written statement on the issue. “I care deeply about it. And we got a report late, late, late last night. We’re very familiar with what needs to happen on the sanctions. And the answer is I do think they’ve made a very good faith effort.”

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed RoyceEdward (Ed) Randall RoyceOvernight Defense: Latest on Korea talks | Trump says summit results 'very exciting!' | Congress to get Space Force plan in February | Trump asked CIA about silent bombs Poll: House GOP candidate leads in California swing district Overnight Defense: Congress reaches deal preventing shutdown | Pentagon poised to be funded on time for first time in years | House GOP rejects effort to get Putin summit documents MORE (R-Calif.) told The Hill that the Treasury Department is putting the Russians “on notice” and now needs to determine which individuals on the list of oligarchs should be sanctioned.

“This is the process you pretty much have to follow in terms of dealing with the Europeans who we are trying to affect here,” Royce said. “They are following the procedure.”

Royce sent a letter to Mnuchin on Tuesday urging him to determine which Russians on the list should be subject to sanctions under previous actions that punished Moscow for human rights abuses and destabilizing behavior in Ukraine.

The issue of Russian interference in the election has consumed lawmakers in Washington for the last year, triggering concurrent congressional investigations as well as an ongoing probe by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE.

The interference effort has triggered widespread fears that Moscow could interfere in future votes, driving the push for last year’s sanctions bill as well as other legislative attempts to deter foreign meddling.

CIA Director Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoRosenstein report gives GOP new ammo against DOJ Pompeo rejects ‘good cop, bad cop’ characterization of Russia strategy Pompeo: 'Enormous mistake' for Iran to blame US, allies for attack on military parade MORE said during an interview with BBC published Monday that he has “every expectation” that Russia will seek to meddle in this year’s midterm elections.

The State Department could decide in the future to punish firms for doing business with Russia’s defense sector if it detects sanctioned activity, but it faces no further deadline to do so under the law.

“The questions are, what do Treasury and State do going forward?” Harrell, the former State Department official, said.