It's hard to keep track of all the issues creating tension between President Trump and increasingly weary Republicans in Congress. One of them was a policy battle over new Russia sanctions, and it's a battle that Congress just won.
Over his own objections, Trump just signed into law sanctions against North Korea, Iran and Russia. It's the clearest sign yet that Republicans in Congress don't trust their own president to get tough on Russia and other geopolitical antagonists.
“This is why this bill exists … they don't trust the administration to do this right,” Olga Oliker, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Fix last week.
Trump didn't want to sign this — he let it sit on his desk for a week — but Congress gave him no choice. Republican leaders took up the bill despite the president's objections. They passed it with the help of Democrats and a veto-proof majority. They made sure the legislation was written in a way that prevents Trump from rolling some of these sanctions back on his own.
“Since this bill was first introduced, I have expressed my concerns to Congress about the many ways it improperly encroaches on Executive power, disadvantages American companies, and hurts the interests of our European allies,” Trump wrote in his signing statement for the bill.
Here's an aide for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) cheering just how broad this new law is:
The Russia sanctions are retaliation for Russia's alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential election. These will be in addition to sanctions President Barack Obama issued on his way out the door, kicking Russian “diplomats” out of Washington and seizing Russia-owned compounds in the United States.
As I wrote recently, if Congress thinks Russia needs more punishment, it's pretty obvious why they aren't confident Trump will do it.
The White House has said it's not opposed to sanctions, but it's been wishy-washy on what those would be.
Trump has refused to acknowledge the overwhelming conclusion of U.S. intelligence officials that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia to try to influence the U.S. election to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Trump win. He appears to be considering firing his attorney general after complaining about the Justice Department investigation into Russia's actions and any possible help from the Trump campaign. He's considered giving the diplomatic compounds back to Russia.
And, most recently, he's been conspicuously silent on Putin announcing that he's closing 755 U.S. diplomatic positions in the country — the biggest forced diplomatic exodus in a century.
Trump's silence on a major slight to the United States is especially loud, said The Fix's Aaron Blake, given Trump's tendency to counter punch anyone who pricks him, even foreign nations.
Trump, in other words, is not doing much to assuage his own party's concerns that he's willing to get tough on Russia. And this sanctions law is a remarkable demonstration of unity from a Congress that has shown exactly none of it lately. Tying Trump's hands on Russia is one of the only things Congress can agree on right now.
“There's a lot of stuff they'd rather be doing,” Oliker said, “and that they're much better equipped to deal with. But in the face of an administration that seems to be having a very difficult time articulating its foreign policy, members of Congress have felt they have little choice but to take foreign policy into their own hands.”
From a diplomatic perspective, there are legitimate reasons Trump wouldn't want to sign this sanctions bill. No president wants their hands to be tied on how to deal with a foreign country, since diplomacy is rarely so black and white.
“I built a truly great company worth many billions of dollars. That is a big part of the reason I was elected,” Trump said in a signing statement expressing his objections.” As President, I can make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress.”
Both Congress and the president can levy sanctions against officials, but when Congress issues sanctions, they tend to stay in place for a while. A majority of lawmakers in both chambers agree to them, then they are signed by the president. The same process has to happen to reverse them.
Congress did this to Obama in 2012, when Republican leaders forced him to impose sanctions against Russia with the Magnitsky Act.
Congress is saying the same thing to Trump today, only with an extra layer of political intrigue. Republicans are the ones primarily responsible for sticking it to Trump on Russia because they don't trust him to do it himself.