The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rebuking Trump, over 130 House Republicans challenge plans to lift sanctions against Putin ally

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Russian metals magnate Oleg Deripaska walk to attend the APEC Business Advisory Council dialogue in Danang, Vietnam, on Nov. 10, 2017. (Mikhail Klimentyev/AP)

In a rebuke to the Trump administration, 136 Republicans joined House Democrats Thursday to oppose a Treasury Department plan to lift sanctions against companies controlled by an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The overwhelming 362 to 53 vote will not prevent the Trump administration from easing sanctions on three companies connected to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch with ties to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, as Senate Republicans narrowly blocked a similar measure on Wednesday.

But the House vote does mean that a majority of Republicans on Capitol Hill oppose President Trump’s efforts to soften punitive measures on a Russian oligarch — a rejection with potential implications for the administration’s continued stance on Russia, and for the GOP lawmakers who backed the plan to ease the sanctions.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and GOP Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) both broke with Trump to join Democrats to support the resolution, along with the rest of their leadership team – a particularly awkward rebellion for the White House and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky).

“I don’t believe this issue should divide our two parties. In fact, it should unite us … Congress must guard against playing partisan politics with sanctions,” said Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who previously served as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, where he led an effort to improve cybersecurity in the wake of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 elections.

“I think many members find Treasury’s case for delisting these particular Russia companies to have an argument, but not very compelling,” he added. “Because we cannot be sure that we have removed the heavy hand of this Russian oligarch, I cannot support the delisting of these sanctioned entities at this point in time and therefore I support this resolution.”

Treasury last month said it intended to lift sanctions the U.S. imposed last year against Deripaska’s companies, including a major aluminum producer, while keeping sanctions intact against Deripaska himself. The company sanctions initially caused havoc with global aluminum prices, prompting European allies to complain.

Treasury said it was prepared to lift the company sanctions because Deripaska agreed to reduce his ownership below 50 percent. His reduced stake would protect the companies “from the controlling influence of a Kremlin insider,” Treasury said, adding that the companies had been sanctioned "solely because they were majority-owned or controlled by Deripaska.”

Under a rules change Congress passed in 2017, lawmakers have a 30-day window to block any relaxation of Russia-related sanctions proposed by the Treasury Department. That window closes Friday. Treasury officials didn’t respond to requests for comment Thursday.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) expressed disappointment after a Jan. 10 classified briefing on the lifting of sanctions against Russia. (Video: The Washington Post)

Critics and supporters of the sanctions decision have been scrambling to win votes in Congress, particularly in the last week. Leading House Democrats insisted that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin brief them on the Treasury Department’s plans, which he did last Thursday in a classified setting.

House Democrats emerged from the briefing complaining that it was insufficient, while Mnuchin has since been trying to shore up support among Republicans to keep Treasury’s plans intact.

Former senator David Vitter (R-La.) has also been lobbying on behalf of the Deripaska-controlled En+ Group, a holding company that controls the aluminum producer Rusal. Vitter was seen last week in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) office waiting for a meeting, just days before the measure objecting to lifting the sanctions came to the floor.

The lobbying firm of which Vitter is co-chairman, Mercury Public Affairs, has received more than $650,000 since May 2018 from En+ Group’s chairman to press for sanctions relief, the Center for Responsive Politics reported Thursday, citing documents filed with the Justice Department. A Mercury spokesman declined to comment.

The measure fell just a few votes shy of the 60 needed to advance it to a final vote in the Senate, even after attracting the support of eleven Republican senators including Marco Rubio of Florida, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ben Sasse of Nebraska.

“With the threat that Russia poses to the United States, to our friends and allies, to democracy around the world, Congress cannot just look the other way when the Administration rushes a decision like this. There are too many open questions about whether Deripaska will still control the companies that these sanctions address,” Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said on the House floor Thursday.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) sent a letter to Mnuchin renewing the request to delay the easing of the sanctions, in light of the votes in the House and the Senate.

Washington’s sanctions on Rusal and En+ Group clobbered Deripaska financially, sinking the market value of his publicly traded companies. Rusal shares have rebounded somewhat on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange since Treasury announced it would lift the sanctions, rising about 18 percent in a boost for Deripaska. But the stock is still down about 65 percent from its pre-sanction levels.

The U.S. sanctioned Deripaska and his companies in April 2018, among a group of Russian elites the U.S. said had furthered “the Kremlin’s global malign activities, including its attempts to subvert Western democracy.”

In announcing those sanctions, Treasury also noted that Deripaska had been investigated for money laundering and accused of “threatening the lives of business rivals” and having ties to organized crime.

Deripaska has denied those allegations in the past. He and his companies did not respond to requests for comment.