A showdown in Congress is looming over expanding sanctions against Russia, possibly pitting lawmakers once again against President-elect Donald J. Trump and his secretary of state nominee who previously has opposed them.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), an outspoken Trump critic, is the latest lawmaker to join the fray, stating that his goal in a series of investigations next year “is to put on President Trump’s desk crippling sanctions against Russia,” he wrote on Twitter. “They need to pay a price.”
And on Sunday’s “State of the Union” on CNN, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Armed Services Committee chair and a hardliner on Russia who believes that country hacked the election, called for a single select committee to investigate the alleged Russian meddling, as did incoming Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer of New York. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has rejected that approach.
The list of lawmakers who have called for expanded Russia sanctions includes Republicans and Democrats, Trump critics and members who supported the Republican’s White House bid. Their reasons are many, including anger over Moscow’s alleged role in a series of election-related hacks to revulsion at the Kremlin’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad torturing his own people.
But even if Congress censures Russia with its strongest brand of sanctions, there is no guarantee that the Trump administration will actually implement them.
“It’s certainly possible Trump might not implement them, but there is overwhelming bipartisan consensus in Congress that sanctions have worked on Russia for other issues, and will work again in the future,” said a Senate Democratic aide who was not authorized to speak publicly. “We’re hopeful the Trump team and the president-elect himself will come to understand this.”
The United States has imposed sanctions against Russia since 2014 in response to the annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s support of separatists in eastern Ukraine. The measures, which restrict Russia’s financial, energy and defense sectors, depend largely on cooperation from the European Union, which voted this week to extend Ukraine sanctions against Russia for six months.
Trump’s new pick for secretary of state, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, publicly opposed those sanctions, which Exxon estimates cost them over $1 billion in lost business.
“We do not support sanctions, generally, because we don’t find them to be effective unless they are very well implemented comprehensibly and that’s a very hard thing to do,” Tillerson told an annual meeting of Exxon executives in 2014.
It is unclear if Tillerson will continue to oppose sanctions if he is confirmed as secretary of state. The Trump transition team did not respond to an emailed question on the subject.
Sanctions have emerged as a popular, relatively bloodless tool for the GOP-led Congress to address intractable international conflicts and threatening foreign regimes. In the last year alone, lawmakers passed congressional sanctions against North Korea and extended a comprehensive range of measures against Iran to preserve the option to reimpose sanctions if Tehran violates last year’s nuclear deal.
President Obama allowed the 10-year extension of the Iran Sanctions Act to become law last week without his signature, under apparent pressure from Iranian leaders and others who argued renewing the energy, trade, defense and banking sector restrictions would jeopardize the nuclear pact. The administration believed the president already had authority to sanction Iran in the event of any nuclear deal violations.
All of this occurred even before the CIA’s assessment that Russia meddled in the U.S. elections in order to boost Trump — a conclusion Trump has called “ridiculous.” Senior lawmakers and foreign policy leaders have vowed to aggressively investigate those claims and others regarding Russia in a series of probes in the new Congress.
McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) have indicated a preference to conduct any election-related probes in their intelligence committees, where leaders are able to wield influence over what information is ultimately released to the public.
President Obama suggested Friday that he was unlikely to answer calls from several top congressional Democrats to declassify all information pertaining to alleged Russian hacks before he leaves office.
“We will provide evidence that we can safely provide that does not compromise sources and methods. But I’ll be honest with you, when you’re talking about cyber security a lot of it is classified,” Obama said.
Efforts to investigate Russia’s alleged election interference and impose expanded sanctions against the Kremlin may run into resistance from the Trump administration.
During his campaign, Trump took a decidedly softer stance toward the Kremlin, encouraging closer relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and hiring a team of advisers on the same wavelength.
The Trump team even worked behind the scenes at the Republican National Convention to maneuver the party platform away from language that would have called for maintaining or increasing sanctions against Russia over its meddling in Ukraine.
But the clamor for more punitive measures has rising in Congress from corners of both parties.
Lawmakers have pointed to the Iran and North Korea measures as a potential blueprint for Russia sanctions. And they’ve already made opening attempts to tighten the screws on Moscow.
The House passed one measure this year that would come down on the Kremlin for its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in a bill sanctioning entities that provide Syria’s government with financial, material or technological support. The effort is to “halt the wholesale slaughter of the Syrian people.”
Though the bill mentions Russia by name only once, there is little doubt that the Russian and Iranian regimes would be primarily impacted by it. Prior to the vote, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said there was “unanimity of opinion” about the need for the sanctions, “regardless of people’s perception about a given regime, or how we approach the conundrum of Syria.”
In the Senate, top Foreign Relations Committee Democrat Ben Cardin (D-Md.) has promised a bill to impose “sanctions, plus more than that” against Russia over cyber hacking activities, Ukraine involvement and bombing campaigns in Syria, which Secretary of State John Kerry has suggested amount to war crimes.“We expect it to be bipartisan,” Cardin said this month.
The top House Intelligence Committee Democrat Adam Schiff (Calif.) has suggested the president should start considering options to use the authority he already has to sanction Russia over its alleged election-related hacking.
But some powerful Republicans say the administration must do a better job restricting Putin with tools they already have.
McCain says there has been “selective enforcement of sanctions imposed on Russia.”
But their efforts to expand punitive actions against Russia may be affected by probes of alleged election hacking.
House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) has accused the intelligence community of withholding information from Congress, charges sparked by Washington Post reports. In a statement Friday, Nunes promised his committee would visit the FBI, NSA, CIA and DIA in January “so members can further investigate this issue.”
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) also released a lengthy statement Friday outlining the committee’s plans to investigate all “cyber activity directed against our nation by the Russian government, both as it regards the 2016 Election and more broadly” and to “follow the intelligence wherever it leads.”
“We will conduct this review expeditiously, but we will take the time to get it right and will not be influenced by uninformed discourse,” Burr said in the statement.