While astonishing news is swirling around Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Kremlin-linked lawyer last June, the Trump administration is quietly trying to put the kibosh on bipartisan legislation to sanction Russia for election interference.
The bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and John McCain (R-AZ), would impose new sanctions against Russia and was specifically crafted to make it difficult for President Trump to lift them. It passed in the Senate by a 98-2 margin in June.
But now the bill suddenly looks like it may be in jeopardy. Republicans in the House have been slow to take up a bill that would embarrass the president, and Trump’s team is raising objections to its curtailment of their executive authority to deal with Russia as they see fit. One House Republican, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ed Royce, is now threatening to write his own legislation if House Speaker Paul Ryan doesn’t soon bring up the Senate bill for a vote, according to Politico.
The crucial backdrop for this fight is the larger domestic political question of how far Republicans in Congress are willing to go to punish Russia for its election interference — and how willing they are to break with Trump to do so.
Those questions are taking on added importance after new revelations that the president’s son met with a Russian intermediary who explicitly promised information that would harm Hillary Clinton as part of a broader effort to help Trump during the election.
So far, Republicans have tried to chart a middle path on Trump and Russia, pressing forward with a Senate investigation into possible collusion while rejecting the further-reaching investigation that Democrats and outside legal experts have demanded. The fate of the Russia sanctions bill is another vital test of that relationship.
What the sanctions bill actually does
At heart, the legislation is crafted to punish Russia for hacking the Democratic National Committee’s email servers and the personal Gmail account of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. On January 6, the director of national intelligence released a 25-page report finding with “high confidence” that Vladimir Putin had directed the hack as part of a broad effort to hurt Clinton and help Trump.
There are four major ways the legislation aims to punish Russia for that campaign interference, with the intention of deterring Putin from doing so again by hurting the country’s economy. (Trump has repeatedly said he doesn't believe Russia was behind the hack — or at least he thinks “other countries” might be involved — and spent the past few days attacking the American intelligence community while stunning lawmakers from both parties by accepting Putin’s denials at face value.)
“Will the bill crush the Russian economy? No. Would these sanctions create real limitations on the Russian economy going forward? Yes,” said Olga Oliker, senior adviser and director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “You’re not bringing Russia to its knees economically, but you are talking about some long-term pain.”
The first mechanism to do so is by preventing Trump from lifting the sanctions against Russia that already exist — in particular, a slew of sanctions then-President Obama imposed in response to the Russian military intervention in Ukraine in February 2014. The legislation also aims to codify sanctions Obama implemented against Russia over election interference in January 2017 after Trump’s election.
As Vox’s Zeeshan Aleem has written, Trump already cannot revoke separate Russian sanctions, like those passed by Congress through the Magnitsky Act. Those sanctions hit individuals and some organizations — not letting them come to America or do business with American companies, for instance — in response to the death of a young lawyer who was investigating Russia fraud.
But currently, Trump can substantially undo the sanctions Obama issued against Russia via executive order — sanctions that went after Putin’s political and business allies over both Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and its interference in the US election. The Senate bill would prevent Trump from lifting those series of sanctions.
“Right now the president can just say, ‘These are gone now,’” Oliker said. “If this bill passes, the president has to give a rationale for doing away with them — and wait for Congress to yea or nay it.”
These sanctions have hit Russia’s burgeoning energy industry particularly hard. Before the sanctions, it was becoming common for US firms to assist Russian companies in the lucrative extraction of oil from Siberia. The 2014 sanctions effectively put an end to that practice. Obama’s 2017 sanctions also made it illegal to do business with two Russian intelligence services and several officers that cooperated with Russian intelligence operations. Obama also seized two Russian diplomatic compounds that Trump has talked of returning to Russian control. (The compounds sanctions also stemmed from the treatment of American diplomatic personnel in Russia, a congressional aide said.)
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has consistently said he opposed lifting the Ukraine sanctions, telling Reuters that he’s “been very clear in my discussions with Russian leadership, on more than one occasion, that it is necessary for Russia to take the first steps to de-escalate the situation in the east part of Ukraine.”
But the Senate wants to take the decision out of Trump’s hands entirely, so he can’t lift those sanctions.
The sanctions bill tries to hurt Vladimir Putin in new ways too. Will it?
In addition to preventing old sanctions from being lifted, the Senate bill creates strict new ones. The most notable are what are known as “secondary sanctions” — sanctions that will aim to deter companies outside the US from doing business with Russia.
“Direct sanctions are, ‘You, as an American entity, cannot do business with these Russian entities.’ But these secondary sanctions are: ‘You, American entity, will not do business with any entity that does business with these Russian entities,’ and that foreign entities who do business with Russian entities may also be sanctioned,’” Oliker explained.
An example may help illustrate how these work. Currently, a Swedish manufacturer can, for example, sell computer chips to companies tied to the Russian government and simultaneously continue to have access to US banking capital. The new sanctions may end that — under the new sanctions regime, foreign companies that sell certain goods to the Russians would potentially find themselves cut off from US markets, depending on how the provision is enforced, according to Oliker.
“That’s a really big deal because it makes it harder for anybody else to invest in Russia, rather than just preventing US [firms from doing so],” she said.
The bill will impose sanctions against any company that “engages in a significant transaction” tied to the Russian defense sector, Oliker said.
She worries that the language is too broad and sweeping — would Microsoft be in trouble if the Russian Ministry of Defense buys new Windows applications? — but it will certainly make life more difficult for Russian defense firms.
Another part of the new sanctions will target Russian companies who are trying to work with foreign companies around the world. These new sanctions will make it difficult for Russian companies to learn tools for gas exploration outside of Russia’s borders too.
“These new sanctions would put restrictions on Russian companies working with Western firms on gas exploration even if they’re doing so outside of Russia,” Oliker explains.
Beyond that, the bill has at least two other key policy components. One mandates that Trump get explicit congressional approval before trying to return the two Russian compounds in Maryland and New York that Obama seized.
Another provision, crafted by an aide to Sen. Cardin, would create a cybersecurity unit to combat Russian disinformation campaigns during elections, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe.
Watch House Republicans’ reaction carefully
Given that the Senate has enough votes to override a presidential veto, the key battleground for the Russia sanctions bill now lies in the House of Representatives.
There are mixed signals. On the one hand, the Trump White House appears to have been at least temporarily successful in pressuring House Republicans to delay their vote on the bill. The Senate passed the bill on June 29, and we’re still waiting for the House vote.
That suggests the White House’s pleas are being heard. "We support the sanctions on Iran and Russia; however, this bill is so poorly written that 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.
Still, it’s not clear House Republicans are willing to buy Short’s argument. Politico reported on Tuesday that some House Republicans are growing increasingly “impatient” with the stalled bill, with Rep. Royce now moving forward with his own version.
“Russia and Iran must be held accountable for their aggression that undermines our national security, and global stability,” Royce said in a statement to Politico. “The sooner we can get this done, the better.”
Just how soon that will be, though, remains an open question.