The House of Representatives passed a sanctions bill on Tuesday which, if passed by the Senate, represents the first major attempt by the Republican Party to tie Trump’s hands on Russia.
And in the past few days, it’s apparent that the White House doesn’t seem to know what to do about it.
The issue is about to come to a head. The House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bill that would impose new economic sanctions on Russia, Iran, and North Korea and establish a policy that would prevent the president from unilaterally lifting them. The measure passed by an eye-opening 419-3 margin, and the Senate might end up voting on it as early as this week.
Given the ease with which the bill passed in the House and the fact that a similar, earlier version of this bill passed the Senate 98-2, supporters of the new legislation are likely to have more than enough votes to override a Trump veto. If a veto-proof majority does in fact form in Congress, Trump will effectively be forced to sign the bill — if he refuses to sign it, he’ll look weak as his own party overrides him.
The bill would take Obama-era sanctions against Russia that are in place under executive orders — that is, directives that only the president has authority to enact and rescind — and officially enshrine them in the law. It would also establish a new congressional review process that would allow Congress to block the White House from taking steps to ease sanctions if it wanted to.
Since one of Trump’s foremost foreign policy priorities has been improving ties with Russia, this poses a conundrum for the White House. Without the power to unilaterally ease sanctions on Moscow, Trump will lose a prized bargaining chip and find it far harder to show the Russians he can offer them something desirable in a deal intended to reset the relationship.
So Trump has an interest in discouraging the bill from passing or threatening to veto it. That’s why Secretary of State Rex Tillerson criticized the earlier version of this bill that the Senate voted on in June as hampering the White House’s “flexibility” in talks with Russia.
But at the same time, Trump is constantly under siege over the ever-growing web of ties between his inner circle and Russia and allegations that they colluded with Moscow to tip the election in his favor. So if he pushes against the bill too vociferously, he will simply cement the convictions of his critics that he’s in Vladimir Putin’s pocket, and give more traction to calls for investigations into his past affairs.
On the Sunday talk shows, it was apparent the White House hasn’t quite figured out how to handle this. The new White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on ABC’s This Week that “the administration is supportive of being tough on Russia, particularly in putting these sanctions in place.”
“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, and we support where the legislation is now,” she said.
But new White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci contradicted that statement of support at around the exact time that Sanders made it. Speaking on CNN’s State of the Union, Scaramucci suggested that the White House wasn’t in fact backing the bill — although he hedged a bit by noting that he had only just started his job in the White House’s press shop last week.
“You’ve got to ask President Trump that. My guess is that he’s going to make that decision shortly,” he said.
Trump “hasn’t made the decision yet to sign that bill one way or the other,” he added.
The White House is really bad at staying on message
This kind of mixed messaging is typical for an administration that frequently fails to hold a consistent line on pressing issues of the day due to a combination of chaotic decision-making, poor organization, and ideological incoherence in the administration.
For example, Trump diverged sharply from Tillerson and other American diplomats on how to deal with the Qatar crisis in the Middle East. Trump lauded Saudi Arabia’s severe isolation campaign against Qatar, while Tillerson tried to take a more neutral stance — thus confusing allies on where the US actually stands. And in this case, the complexity of Russia-related politics in the White House only compounds that general trend.
As Sanders suggested during her television appearance, the administration has reason to like this bill a bit more than the one the Senate voted on in June. According to the Washington Post, it has removed a provision that blacklists energy companies for participating in projects involving any Russian firms and delays some defense and intelligence sanctions while giving the administration some say in “clarifying” which Russian institutions would fit under them.
But this bill still puts new sanctions on Russia and establishes the congressional review process for blocking their removal — the fundamental features are still intact. And so the White House’s fundamental concerns should remain as well.
This would cause a big rift between Trump and the party
This would be a huge vote of no-confidence by the GOP. They’d be admitting that they mistrust the president’s judgment on one of the most crucial geopolitical relationships the US has. The Republicans would also be shielding themselves from current and future criticism that they’ve been too soft on Russia despite its meddling in the 2016 election.
Back when Trump entered office, the party seemed inclined to give him some breathing room on Russia. They’ve tried to drag their feet on congressional investigations over his campaign’s ties to Russia, and rallied behind Tillerson for secretary of state despite his close ties with the Kremlin.
But this bill, should it pass, would draw a line in the sand: Russia can’t get a free pass on sanctions.