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 GrahamSenators preview bill to stop tech giants from prioritizing their own products Democrats fret as longshot candidates pull money, attention Tim Scott takes in .3 million in third quarter 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 TrumpTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits Biden: Those who defy Jan. 6 subpoenas should be prosecuted Hillicon Valley — Presented by LookingGlass — Hackers are making big money 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 CollinsMcConnell gets GOP wake-up call Republicans are today's Dixiecrats Biden's push for unity collides with entrenched partisanship 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 McCaskillEx-Rep. Akin dies at 74 Republicans may regret restricting reproductive rights Sunday shows preview: States deal with fallout of Ida; Texas abortion law takes effect MORE (D-Mo.) accusing the president of ignoring the sanctions legislation and calling the development “a constitutional crisis.”

Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinDefense & National Security — Military starts giving guidance on COVID-19 vaccine refusals Blinken pressed to fill empty post overseeing 'Havana syndrome' GOP disappointment with McConnell deal could delay vote 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 ShaheenDefense & National Security — Military starts giving guidance on COVID-19 vaccine refusals Blinken pressed to fill empty post overseeing 'Havana syndrome' Lawmakers call for more resources to support early cancer detection 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 MnuchinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Biden jumps into frenzied Dem spending talks Former Treasury secretaries tried to resolve debt limit impasse in talks with McConnell, Yellen: report Menendez, Rubio ask Yellen to probe meatpacker JBS 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 CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  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 RoyceBottom line Bottom line California was key factor in House GOP's 2020 success 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 (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel 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 PompeoMike PompeoState Department watchdog probing whether Trump aides took gifts meant for foreign officials Biden shows little progress with Abraham Accords on first anniversary Biden slips further back to failed China policies 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.