Lawmakers look to bypass Trump on North Korea sanctions

Senators from both parties increasingly worried about North Korea's nuclear weapons program are talking about bypassing President Trump and hitting the country with sanctions on their own.

That talk is setting up a potential clash between Congress and President Trump, whose administration insists they are already hitting the regime of Kim Jong Un hard.

Trump enacted unprecedented sanctions last week that target banks around the globe that do business with North Korea. It's a major step toward raising pressure on China, Pyongyang's staunchest ally and benefactor, to cut their support for Kim.

Administration officials have urged lawmakers to be let the sanctions already in place work and not tie their hands by acting alone.


But as North Korea presses ahead with its nuclear program and gets closer to a weapon that could hit the U.S., senators are growing impatient.

Lawmakers admit it is a difficult decision between sitting on the sidelines or bucking the president and taking matters into their own hands.

“I wonder whether additional congressional activities are helpful when we’re on the brink of something that could become a catastrophe,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerOvernight Defense: Trump shifts tone on Saudis | New pressure from lawmakers | Trump: 'Certainly looks' like Khashoggi dead | Pompeo gives Saudis days to wrap up investigation | Trump threatens military action on border to stop migrants Trump changes tone on Saudi Arabia amid mounting pressure The Hill's 12:30 Report — Mnuchin won't attend Saudi conference | Pompeo advises giving Saudis 'few more days' to investigate | Trump threatens military action over caravan MORE (R-Tenn.) told a Senate Banking Committee hearing on sanctions this week.

At the hearing, the Banking Committee, which has jurisdiction over sanctions, heard from top administration officials on the way forward.

Lawmakers expressed frustration at the inability to restrain North Korea.

“Is there any reason why we shouldn’t throw the kitchen sink at them?” asked Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonFlake: Congress should not continue Kavanaugh investigations GOP senator suspects Schumer of being behind release of Ford letter Susan Collins becomes top 2020 target for Dems MORE (R-Ark.), a defense hawk and army veteran. “Hit them as hard as we can, as fast as we can, with everything we can?”

“That’s exactly what we’re doing,” replied Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Crimes Sigal Mandelker.

Mandelker and Susan Thornton, the acting assistant secretary of State for east Asian and Pacific affairs, asked for patience and flexibility.

Both the administration and Congress feel pressure.

North Korea has conducted several long-range missile and high-power warhead tests this year, coupled with threats to the United States and its allies. Fears about the Kim regime’s aggressive behavior reached a new level when the country carried out what appeared to be a successful hydrogen bomb test.

Trump's rhetoric has also inflamed tensions after he threatened the country with "fire and fury."

Recently, Trump has taken to mocking Kim as "little rocket man" and vowed to "totally destroy" the country if it threatened the U.S. or allies in his maiden speech before the United Nations.

"I told Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonWatchdog org: Tillerson used million in taxpayer funds to fly throughout US Trump administration rigging the game, and your retirement fund could be the loser Haley’s exit sends shockwaves through Washington MORE, our wonderful secretary of state, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man," he tweeted Sunday, after Tillerson said the U.S. is in direct contact with North Korean officials. "Being nice to Rocket Man hasn't worked in 25 years, why would it work now?"

The State Department maintained on Sunday that diplomatic channels are open with North Korea's leader "for now."

The administration has stepped up its response to North Korea, however, boosting pressure on China to scale back its economic and military support for North Korea. For Pyongyang, which is largely isolated from the rest of the world, China’s support is essential.

Trump officials have increased sanctions on North Korea, and blocked banks and business that funded the country’s government or military from the U.S. financial system. Those actions came despite Chinese government warnings. China has warned the U.S. about sanctions that would target its banks and businesses and has even floated retaliation.

North Korea, though, has pressed ahead with its effort to develop a weapon that can reach the U.S.

That led Trump last week to give sweeping new powers to the Treasury Department in an executive order. It empowered the department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which administers foreign sanctions, to block any bank or firm that does business with North Korea in any capacity.

The administration took pains to emphasize that the sanctions were not meant to target China. The Bank of China, the country’s central bank, announced it would stop doing business with North Korea soon after Trump revealed the sanctions.

“The brutal North Korean regime does not respect its own citizens or the sovereignty of other nations,” Trump said when he issued the order. “A new executive order will cut off sources of revenue that fund North Korea's efforts to develop the deadliest weapons known to humankind.”

Treasury has already targeted eight North Korean banks and 27 North Korean nationals with the new powers.

But lawmakers are mulling putting additional pressure on China, which they worry is slow to crack down on North Korea.

Members of Congress have suggested boosting sanctions on companies and countries such as China and Russia that export oil to North Korea.

Such sanctions could strike a powerful blow to North Korea’s economy, but could worsen U.S. relations with those countries and invite economic retaliation.

Some senators already worry that it might be too late to act.

Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerDems can use subpoena power to reclaim the mantle of populism Is there a difference between good and bad online election targeting? Collusion judgment looms for key Senate panel MORE (D-Va.), the ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, urged Banking Committee Chairman Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoLawmakers, Wall Street shrug off Trump's escalating Fed attacks GOP loads up lame-duck agenda as House control teeters Republicans shift course after outside counsel falters MORE (R-Idaho) to hold a classified briefing for senators on the Kim regime's advancing weapons program.

Warner openly wondered whether there was time for the sanctions in place to work.

“Do we have any sense at all that we’re going to have the time for these sanctions to take effect given the progress they’ve had on the nuclear front,” he asked.

Even so, many senators are demanding the administration do more to prevent money from getting to the Kim regime and floating congressional action.

Mandelker and Thornton both insisted the administration is taking unprecedented action to strangle North Korea’s economy while walking a careful line with China.

And they repeatedly urged lawmakers to let the administration take the lead and not take steps that could have unintended consequences or lock the U.S. into a course of action.

“The calculus that they have about the line between war and chaos and getting to denuclearization is slightly different than the line that we have,” Thornton said.