In a floor speech before the vote, Minority Leader Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) argued:
The President has avoided criticizing President Putin at every turn. When asked about President Putin’s brutal tactics against his opponents, President Trump demurs. When this body – nearly unanimously – passed the Russian sanction legislation, President Trump contemplated vetoing it. When President Putin told President Trump he didn’t interfere in our 2016 elections, the President reportedly said “I believe you.” Last weekend, we learned that President Trump has expressed a desire to withdraw from NATO . . . That’s Putin’s dream. All the advice of our military and our diplomatic leaders were against it. Somehow the president wants to do it. And who benefits the most? Putin. Who loses the most? The West.
Why, then, Schumer asked, should sanctions be lifted when Deripaska still retains 45 percent interest in the companies, his in-laws get 7 percent and the “large percentage that Russian banks, controlled by Putin, own – the control is just as tight as it was before”? The lifting sanctions was nothing but a gift, “another example President Trump trying to lighten the burden on Putin’s oligarchs,” Schumer said.
While 11 Republican senators deserve credit for breaking with the president and his pro-Putin stance, the more disturbing question is why the rest voted to protect Trump, and by extension Putin, rather than defend the sanctions regime they had originally supported. (The New York Times dryly reports, “The Republicans who voted against the administration plan were adhering to what had once been party orthodoxy: taking a hard line against Moscow. The Republicans who voted in favor of lifting the sanctions did so at a time when President Trump’s warmer stance toward Russia has inflamed questions about the Kremlin’s efforts to help elect him.”)
The vote came as controversy and suspicion swirl regarding Trump’s efforts to keep secret, even from his own advisers, the contents of private meetings and calls with Putin as well as news of the FBI’s opening a counterintelligence investigation into Trump’s possible status as a Russian asset.
On Wednesday Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to Trump demanding to know if Trump “preserved all records, including notes, transcripts, documents, and communications related to any meetings, telephone calls, or any other interaction that you have had with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin since being sworn into office in January 2017.” They explained, “According to recent news reports, you have confiscated interpreters’ notes and taken other steps to conceal the content of your conversations with the Russian leader. Your insistence on secrecy related to these interactions, even with your own staff, is alarming, unprecedented, and could be in violation of the Presidential Records Act and Federal Records. They argue that given the counterintelligence investigation news, they “believe it to be in the national security interests of the United States that any record of these conversations be preserved and immediately provided to Congress.”
And yet, when all this is going on, riding to Trump’s defense are the majority of Senate Republicans -- including self-described hawks like Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), Joni Ernst (Iowa), Mitt Romney (Utah), John Cornyn (Tex.), Dan Sullivan (Alaska) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) -- the last of which no doubt would prompt the late Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) to roll over in his grave.
It is bad enough that Republicans give Trump cover on the shutdown, the full array of scandals and screw-ups and his attacks on the rule of law, but must they put party -- and Putin -- over country? The answer for most of them, sadly, is yes.
When 2020 rolls around one hopes appropriately tough GOP primary challengers and Democratic nominees wrap this vote around the necks of Trump/Putin enablers. Beyond that, our consolation must be the harsh judgment of history on this bunch of pusillanimous politicians.