President Trump on Wednesday signed a bill that imposes new sanctions on Russia, ending immediate hopes that he might be able to reset U.S. relations with the Kremlin as Congress overruled his opposition to the provisions' curb on his executive power.
Trump's reluctant signing of the legislation came nearly a week after it was approved by an overwhelming, bipartisan majority in the Senate and after a similarly large majority in the House. The president issued two statements outlining his concerns with the bill, which he called “seriously flawed,” primarily because it limits his ability to negotiate sanctions without congressional approval.
“By limiting the Executive’s flexibility, this bill makes it harder for the United States to strike good deals for the American people, and will drive China, Russia, and North Korea much closer together,” Trump said in a statement on Wednesday morning. “The Framers of our Constitution put foreign affairs in the hands of the President.
“This bill will prove the wisdom of that choice,” he added.
Lawmakers' solidarity in tying Trump's hands on this issue reflects a deepening concern about the administration's posture toward Russia, which critics have characterized as naive. The new Russia sanctions expand on measures taken by the Obama administration to punish the Kremlin for its alleged efforts to interfere in the 2016 election. But Trump has continued to doubt that Russia was responsible and he has called the investigations in Congress and by the special counsel into Russian meddling a “witch hunt.”
The administration's lobbying of lawmakers in public and private to pull back the bill's requirement that Congress review any attempt by the president to amend sanctions against Moscow ultimately fell on deaf ears. The measure imposes a 30-day review period to give Congress a chance to vote down any of the president’s proposed changes to Russia sanctions before they can be implemented.
Despite Trump's considerable objections, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) praised the bill becoming law.
“Today, the United States sent a powerful message to our adversaries that they will be held accountable for their actions,” Ryan said. “These sanctions directly target the destructive and destabilizing activities of Iran, Russia, and North Korea.
“We will continue to use every instrument of American power to defend this nation and the people we serve,” he added.
Trump said that he signed the bill despite his reservations for the sake of “national unity.” In a second statement accompanying his signing of the legislation, Trump called some of the provisions in the legislation “clearly unconstitutional.”
And in a pointed jab at lawmakers in his own party, he questioned Congress's ability to negotiate sanctions based on its inability to approve the Republicans' health-care legislation.
“The bill remains seriously flawed — particularly because it encroaches on the executive branch’s authority to negotiate,” Trump said. “Congress could not even negotiate a healthcare bill after seven years of talking.”
According to constitutional law experts, Congress rightfully asserted its own constitutional powers to serve as a check on the executive branch, even on matters of national security.
Constitutional and national security expert Michael Glennon from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy said that Trump's statement was “gross misreading” of the case law he cited in his signing statement to bolster his claim that the congressional review provision had unconstitutionally robbed him of the power to negotiate.
“That’s obviously a misguided interpretation of his constitutional authority,” Glennon said. “Congress has very broad authority over foreign commerce — it’s explicitly given the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations.
“It could have, if it desired, imposed those sanctions without giving the president any waiver authority whatsoever,” he added.
Trump had the ability to veto this bill, but it would likely have been overridden by majorities in Congress. Instead his decision to issue a signing statement, asserting which parts of the law he would choose to enforce, follows in a tradition that has grown more common among modern presidents. President George W. Bush frequently used signing statements to assert that he could selectively enforce or ignore parts of bills passed by Congress, including to rebuff congressional restrictions on interrogation techniques. The practice of issuing signing statements continued in President Barack Obama's administration.
The measure also imposes sanctions against North Korea and Iran for those countries' weapons programs.
Russia has already retaliated against the United States for the new sanctions, announcing that it would order the U.S. Embassy to reduce its staff by 755 people and seize U.S. diplomatic properties.
Trump noted that he supported tough measures to punish the three regimes, and said that he will honor the review period prescribed in the bill.
But in a potential warning to lawmakers that he might not observe those parts of the law, Trump added that he would “give careful and respectful consideration” to other provisions that direct the administration to undertake diplomatic initiatives and require the administration to deny entry to the United States of certain foreign individuals, without exceptions for diplomats.
“My Administration will give careful and respectful consideration to the preferences expressed by the Congress in these various provisions and will implement them in a manner consistent with the President's constitutional authority to conduct foreign relations,” Trump said.
For now, Trump's desire to reset relations with Russia has hit a major speed bump at around the same time that Americans are expressing growing support for an adversarial approach toward the country, according to a survey released Wednesday by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
The poll finds 53 percent support actively working to limit Russia’s power compared with 43 percent who favor friendly cooperation and engagement, a sharp reversal from last year when 58 percent favor cooperative efforts. Over 4 in 10 say Russian influence in U.S. elections represents a “critical threat” to the country.
The poll finds mixed support for imposing additional sanctions, with 38 percent saying they should be increased and 41 percent saying they should be kept about the same. Far fewer, 17 percent, say the U.S. should decrease or eliminate sanctions on Russia, according to the survey of a random sample of 2,020 adults conducted June 27-July 19.
In addition to concerns about the review component of the bill, the administration also said it was worried about the impact of the bill on U.S. businesses in Russia.
In a statement late last week, the White House signaled that Trump would eventually sign the measure, and a White House official added that the administration had worked to renegotiate critical elements of it.
Yet even as Putin moved quickly to retaliate against the United States, Trump has not issued any statement — written or otherwise — on the Kremlin's actions.
Trump did argue, however, that he could negotiate deals on behalf of the American people far better than Congress.
“I built a truly great company worth many billions of dollars,” Trump said. “That is a big part of the reason I was elected.
“As President, I can make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress,” he added.
Karoun Demirjian and Scott Clement contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately said that Iran has a nuclear weapons program.