Senators, Trump officials clash over Russia sanctions

Senators, Trump officials clash over Russia sanctions
© Greg Nash

A Senate panel united in bipartisan frustration Tuesday as Trump administration officials rebuffed several of their questions about the impact and implementation of Russian financial sanctions.

Members of the Senate Banking Committee criticized top officials at the Treasury, State and Homeland Security departments after they refused to explain how the administration would impose further penalties meant to derail Russia’s economy.

Treasury Acting Deputy Secretary Sigal Mandelker, Homeland Security Undersecretary Christopher Krebs and Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Ford touted major progress toward putting financial pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Trump officials highlighted the hundreds of Russian firms and individuals sanctioned since 2017 and cited statistical proof of the economic decline they caused through the penalties.

But senators have grown increasingly concerned about Putin’s plans for the 2018 election amid mounting reports of Kremlin-backed hacking attempts and are pressing the administration to do more.

Their push includes the full implementation of mandatory Russia sanctions passed last year that have yet to be enforced by the Trump administration.

“It’s been over a year since Congress overwhelmingly passed sanctions on Russia,” said Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenAre Democrats turning Trump-like? Manufacturing shrinks, raising questions for Trump Volatile presidential polls spark new round of anxieties MORE (D-Mass.).

“You still have still not implemented seven mandatory provisions of that law. It is not hard to see why Putin still thinks he can interfere in our elections and get away with it.”

The Banking panel hearing with key players in the Trump administration’s response to Russian aggression comes as senators consider passing a slate of new sanctions designed to decimate the country’s economy.

A bipartisan coalition led by Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham warns Trump on Taliban deal in Afghanistan: Learn from 'Obama's mistakes' Appropriators warn White House against clawing back foreign aid Trump meets with national security team on Afghanistan peace plan MORE (R-S.C.) and Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezHouse passes temporary immigration protections for Venezuelans Senate panel advances bipartisan bill to lower drug prices amid GOP blowback Democrats pledge to fight Trump detention policy during trip to border MORE (D-N.J.) say the “crushing” new sanctions are an essential response to continued Kremlin-sponsored cyber attacks, election interference, support for the Assad regime in Syria and occupation of Crimea.

Some Republican senators have expressed skepticism that Trump would sign the new sanctions and if they’d actually dissuade Putin from further attacks on the U.S. But GOP leadership agreed to consider further penalties after Trump’s stunning summit with Putin in Helsinki.

"The administration is taking some important steps against Putin, his cronies, and the industrial apparatus they control, but can Congress expect more from the administration – and, when?” asked Banking Committee Chairman Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoA US-UK free trade agreement can hold the Kremlin to account Oversight Republicans demand answers on Capital One data breach On The Money: Fed cuts rates for first time since financial crisis | Trump rips Fed after chief casts doubt on future cuts | Stocks slide | Senate kicks budget vote amid scramble for GOP support MORE (R-Idaho).

The administration officials largely refused to answer that question, instead asserting that they had the proper authority and commands to effectively pressure Russia.

“We think that these approaches that we are taking are having an impact in changing others behavior toward Russia in ways that will leave Russia less able to engage in its campaign of malign activities,” Ford said.

Mandelker added that “We have made clear to the world that those who continue to do business with Russia do so at their own peril” through an “unprecedented level of financial pressure on those who support the Kremlin’s agenda and key sectors of the Russian economy.”

Senators quickly became irritated when the officials declined to say why the administration hasn’t implemented a slew of penalties on Russia’s energy, financial and defense sectors mandated in the 2017 sanctions law.

They also grew angry when Mandelker declined to describe ways to destroy Russia’s economy, a question posed by Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.), without first discussing the ways it could upend the world.

“I’m not sure why we’re having such a difficult time answering simple questions,” said Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottGOP Sen. Tim Scott says if he runs in 2022 it will be his last race When it comes to student debt, it is time to talk solutions Democrats call for Senate to return to vote on gun reform after two deadly mass shootings MORE (R-S.C.), who said crippling Russia’s energy sector would upend its economy.

“We seem to be more evasive than helpful in our desire to understand the magnitude of our actions on the Russian economy,” Scott said, chastising the officials.

Senators are considering unprecedented sanctions on Russia’s oil industry, financial system, sovereign debt and wealthiest oligarchs so Putin lacks the resources to continue acts deemed hostile to the U.S.

Treasury officials have previously warned lawmakers that significant sanctions on Russian energy and financial firms could have severe consequences for the global economy.

“Sanctions alone aren’t going to solve the problem,” Mandelker said, adding the administration has “broad authority to target big sectors of the Russian economy.”

Lawmakers are also concerned that major action is required to prevent Putin from attempting to sway the impending midterm elections with a broader cyber attack.

The hearing occurred hours after Microsoft reported another Kremlin-backed hacking attempt targeting Republicans and think tanks critical of Russia, and moments after Treasury announced new sanctions on six Russia shipping entities.

“Today we know that they are not getting the message,” said Sen. Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenSenate Democrats push Trump to permanently shutter migrant detention facility USDA eases relocation timeline as researchers flee agency Fed to launch real-time payments system in 2023 MORE (D-Md.), “despite what you and what everyone else have been saying.”

“If we can’t come up with a way to protect our democracy within 80 days, my goodness, shame on us.”