On Sunday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said President Donald Trump will support a bipartisan bill in Congress designed to punish Russia for interfering in the 2016 US presidential election.
If Trump does indeed sign the bill, it means America will retaliate against Russia for undermining Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign — even though Trump has repeatedly said “nobody really knows” if Russia did so.
Appearing on ABC’s This Week, White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that the administration supports new legislation that both slaps new sanctions on Russia and prevents Trump from removing existing sanctions. The agreement, which Senate and House negotiators reached on Saturday, also imposes new penalties against Iran and North Korea.
The Senate supporters of the bill have worried that Trump would stand in its way, given his ongoing refusal to recognize Russia’s role in meddling in the US election despite the overwhelming consensus of the US intelligence communities. Indeed, earlier this month the White House tried stalling the bill in the House.
But faced with a unified House and Senate, Sanders said the administration would now approve the bill punishing Russia — that the issue the White House took last month was that “the original piece of legislation was poorly written” — and avoid the humiliation of appearing to side with Vladimir Putin over Congressional Republicans. “The administration is supportive of being tough on Russia, particularly in putting these sanctions in place,” Sanders said.
Why is the White House now supporting Russia sanctions?
Unsurprisingly, the White House never objected to the bill on the grounds that it would hurt Putin. Instead, it couched its opposition in terms of its impact on the president’s authority.
"Neither Republican nor Democratic administrations would be comfortable with the current draft because it greatly hampers the executive branch's diplomatic efforts,” Marc Short, a White House official working to delay the bill, told Axios.
But now that it’s getting behind the bill, the administration is saying those concerns have been met. On Sunday, Sanders suggested that the White House would now support the Russia sanctions bill because it had undergone substantial changes from the version in the Senate.
"The original piece of legislation was poorly written, but we were able to work with the House and Senate, and the administration is happy with the ability to do that and make those changes that were necessary," Sanders said.
But it’s hard to believe that the bill now has the White House’s support because the new version does less to tie Trump’s hands. The House did amend the legislation that originally passed the Senate by a 98 to 2 margin, but the biggest change was to also impose sanctions against North Korea. (The Senate version originally just hit Russia and Iran.) Additionally, meeting a concern from industry, the Senate bill raises the bar for when US companies would be prohibited from working with Russian energy firms.
“Frankly, not much in terms of what the administration can and cannot do changed in negotiations so her reasoning is not necessarily on solid ground,” an aide for a Senate Democratic staffer said in an email Sunday. “But we’re glad to see they're supporting the bill and hope they sign it without delay.”
Another plausible explanation for the White House’s turnabout: The administration tried getting their Republican allies in the House to spare them the politically difficult choice over the sanctions bill, but gave up after they were unable to do so.
The House is expected to vote on the bill early next week, and it would then head to Trump’s desk.