A bipartisan group of senators wants to slap Russia with meaty new sanctions for alleged interference in the 2016 elections, along with other aggressive behavior around the world.
But most Republicans won’t commit to support of the measure, apparently deferring to President-elect Trump who has called U.S. intelligence community’s allegations of Russian intervention to tilt the elections in his favor a “political witch hunt.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee top Democrat Benjamin Cardin (Md.) is leading a group of at least ten senators planning to unveil legislation on Tuesday that slams Russia with new sanctions over its alleged hacking of Democrats during the election.
The sanctions would punish anyone supporting cyber breaches of public and private infrastructure or conducting transactions with Russian defense and intelligence operations. The proposed sanctions also cover investments in Russian energy projects and human rights abuses — provisions to punish the Kremlin and its supporters for Russia’s military intervention on behalf of the Assad government in Syria’s civil war and to reinforce pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.
The measure also authorizes new support for counter-propaganda education at home and democracy promotion in Europe.
Five Republicans who have openly criticized Trump or urged him to take a tougher line on Russia – Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Ben Sasse (Neb.), and Rob Portman (Ohio) — are already on board. But other Republicans are holding back, seemingly loathe to cross Trump’s desire for a friendlier relationship with Russia.
“Everybody needs to stop, catch their breath and seed where this whole thing’s going to go before we make specific plans,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee member James Risch (R-Idaho) said, explaining why he did not support Cardin’s efforts. “We’re in a state of flux right now, and that’s not a good time to be acting on something as serious as that.”
The GOP’s recalcitrance to endorse Cardin’s approach to stiffening Russia sanctions comes despite recent signals from GOP leaders that they would be open to more punitive measures, following the Obama administration’s decision to begin sanctioning Russia over hacks of the Democratic National Committee and other political groups, including emails belonging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta.
Last week, spy chiefs also recommended that “it would be prudent to continue to look at other options to impose more sanctions on Russia” over recent cyber intrusions, as Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Marcel Lettre told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
But some Republicans who accept the intelligence chiefs’ advice say they still want to give Trump a chance to weigh in before pulling the trigger on any new sanctions.
“I’d like to get the new president and have his authorship of a bigger package,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) “I’d like to hear the president’s input on that.”
To date, Trump has adopted a softer tone on Russia than the rest of the GOP and, recently in particular, that of the Obama administration. On Monday, Kellyanne Conway, who will serve as a counselor to the president, told USA Today that Trump may consider rolling back sanctions to a level where “our actions are proportionate to what occurred,” suggesting that Obama’s recent sanctions against Russia were politically driven.
Intelligence heads are expected back on the Hill this week to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday in an open hearing, and brief the full Senate and House about the details of Russia’s hacking activities, including their conclusion that Putin ordered the hacking operation in the hopes of aiding Trump.
Trump has downplayed those conclusions, and praised Putin as “very smart!” for not retaliating against Obama’s sanctions. His comments – the latest in a string of kind words the president-elect has offered Putin — drove a schism in the GOP between those who derided Trump for disparaging the intelligence community and those prepared to excuse his reaction.
The sanctions in Cardin’s bill are mandatory — which means the Trump administration would be forced to impose them if they passed, although the administration can frequently waive mandatory sanctions on a case-by-case basis — and would apply to anyone who helps Russian cyber intrusions, supports the Russian defense or intelligence sectors, or makes certain investments in the development of Russian oil, natural gas, civil nuclear and pipeline projects.
The Cardin measure codifies all of the sanctions the Obama administration has imposed against Russia over its intervention in Ukraine and alleged hacking activities. It also establishes that the United States will never recognize Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea — something Trump has suggested he might do — or the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, territories that tried to break away from the country of Georgia with Russia’s support.
The bill would authorize $100 million for State Department programs to improve civil society, invest in anti-corruption and democratization projects in Europe; and $25 million for a Homeland Security-directed program to educate the public about cyber security threats and fake news. It also directs the Treasury Department to establish a new task force to focus on financial crimes linked to Russia.
But the GOP is as divided about those proposals as they are about about Trump’s response to allegations about Russia’s election-related hacking.
Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who also sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, said that “if you can get sanctions to work, I’m all for ‘em” — but expressed “concerns about sanctions strengthening Putin’s hand because he uses that [to] solidify his domestic support.”
Johnson and is counterpart in the House, Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), have both said they do not intend to investigate the allegations of Russian hacking in their committees, deferring to the intelligence committees.
Senate Armed Services Committee member Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), who used to chair the subcommittee with jurisdiction over cyber security, dismissed sanctioning Russia now, arguing “we don’t have in place a strategy on what those options even are” to counter cyber intrusions.
“Until we get a strategy it’s going to be difficult to have any kind of coordinated response,” Fischer added.
Even some Republicans who are on board with sanctioning Russia are critical of the Cardin team’s approach.
Senate Armed Services Committee member Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said he “absolutely think[s] sanctions have to be on the table,” but rejected the idea that they should be mandatory.
“For the most part we just want to provide the administration with more tools,” Tillis explained.
Still, sponsors of the bill are hopeful they can continue to build support for Cardin’s measure. The Democrats co-sponsoring the legislation include Sens. Bob Menendez (N.J.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Richard Durbin (Ill.).