Appearing on “Fox & Friends,” Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Trump, said that the unilateral lifting of sanctions against Russia was under consideration. Reaction was swift and fierce in foreign policy circles and on the Hill.
“Unless there’s some quo for the quid — highly unlikely — a terrible idea,” remarked Thomas Donnelly from the American Enterprise Institute. Likewise, Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, told me: “Giving away something for nothing, especially when it legitimates annexation, is not a great deal — is not a way to make America great again.”
A senior GOP aide mused about secretary of state nominee Rex W. Tillerson, who during his confirmation hearing said, “I would leave things in the status quo so we are able to convey this can go either way.” The senior aide remarked, “I wonder what Tillerson thinks. He hasn’t even been confirmed yet they would take major action like that without him even being in the position?” Frankly, this provides further evidence that the Cabinet officials Trump has appointed — who uniformly regard Russia as a threat — will be bit players in a foreign policy run by Trump and his political cronies in the White House.
A unilateral lifting of sanctions would run headlong into a bipartisan measure to impose additional sanctions on Russia. On Jan. 11, 10 senators introduced a bill to impose a wide array of sanctions for Russian cyberwarfare, the invasion of Ukraine and war crimes in Syria, along with an initiative to expose corruption. At the time, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) stated: “As Russia continues its flagrant efforts to sabotage and subvert democratic norms and principles of freedom across the world, this is a significant step that sends an unequivocal response to President Putin: The U.S. Congress remains united in our absolute rejection of their rule over Crimea, belligerent actions in Syria, and will hold them accountable for their interference in our democratic system.” Members of both parties have made crystal clear that a change in Russian behavior is required before the United States provides Russia with economic relief. “I will continue working with our bipartisan coalition to pressure Putin and his corrupt regime until Russia changes its behavior,” (emphasis added) said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)
The irony could not be greater. Republicans criticized President Obama for making a lopsided deal with Iran that did not obtain promised results (dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program, a full accounting of its past weapons program, anywhere/anytime inspections), but at least Obama got something (temporary cessation of the nuclear program). Back in 2013, Trump declared, “What a rotten deal we made with Iran. We get nothing (except laughter at our stupidity). They get everything, including delay and big cash!” Trump, if he lifts sanctions on Russia, would make a far worse bargain — giving Putin an economic boost and allowing him to keep Ukraine in return for … what exactly? The message would be that there is no penalty for aggression and violation of a sovereign nation’s borders.
“We’ve got to have a better deal. We’re not going to have a unilateral deal,” said chief of staff Reince Priebus — about Obama’s Cuba deal. When Obama shifted U.S. policy without extracting any concrete concessions from the Castro regime, Republicans and some Democrats decried the rotten deal-making. “Nothing was asked of Cuba,” Rubio said of the deal.
Likewise, Trump has called agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership “terrible deals” (without citing specifics) based on the argument that we were giving up more than we got.
The question remains whether Trump will start his term with the worst deal imaginable — a unilateral act of appeasement toward Russia. The obvious way to prevent this is would be swift passage by a veto-proof majority of the bipartisan sanctions bill. Since Trump’s financial connections to Russia are unknown (so long as his tax returns remain secret), and we have yet to find out what contact — if any — occurred between his campaign and the Russians, he cannot be trusted with executive discretion to lift sanctions. Sanctions relief should be permitted only by a vote in Congress. At some point, Congress has to save Trump and the country from Trump.