Senators Aim To Make It Harder For Trump Administration To Ease Russia Sanctions

Jun 13, 2017
Originally published on June 13, 2017 7:22 pm

A bipartisan group of senators has taken a step to limit the Trump administration's ability to ease sanctions on Russia, adding an amendment to a widely supported Iran sanctions bill to make sure Congress has a say in future Russia policy. The Senate is considering the bill this week.

The amendment ensures that Congress has time to review any plans by the Trump administration to relax, suspend or terminate sanctions — some of which were imposed after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and supported separatists in Eastern Ukraine, in a conflict that is ongoing.

The Obama administration expanded sanctions in December 2016, after accusing the Russian government of meddling in U.S. elections and harassing American diplomats.

With the Trump team now under scrutiny for contact with the Russians during the campaign, many lawmakers are worried that the White House is looking to ease up on that pressure.

"We think that is a fundamental policy shift for the United States that needs to be done in sunlight and therefore a review of Congress is urgent," says Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

The amendment would also slap new sanctions on Russians involved in human rights violations, those supplying weapons to the Syrian government and those conducting "malicious cyber activity on behalf of the Russian government."

A third part is aimed at helping countries in Central and Eastern Europe counter disinformation from Russia.

"We know that Russia is actively engaged in cyber attacks on democratic institutions. We experience it firsthand," Cardin told a group of journalists Monday before announcing an agreement on the amendment with the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and colleagues from the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. The amendment incorporates language from earlier bills the senators had introduced this year.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been trying to find areas of cooperation with Russia. He is sending a top State Department official, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon, to St. Petersburg on June 23to work through some "irritants."

That includes the possibility of allowing Russia to regain access to compounds in New York and Maryland that the Obama administration seized last December, saying Russia was using the compounds for intelligence activities.

"We have a large place mat of difficult issues with Russia," Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a budget hearing on Tuesday, explaining that he is trying to "stabilize" relations.

Tillerson said the Trump administration's talks with Russia about Syria are "progressing in a positive way" and he argued that he does not want to close any channels to Russia at this time. However, he did not outline any progress that might pave the way for an easing of sanctions.

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As investigators probe Russia's election meddling and possible ties to the Trump campaign, some senators are trying to limit the administration's ability to maneuver on Russia policy. They want to make sure there are no backroom deals with Moscow. It's a bipartisan group. This is one of the things senators raised with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson today. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The ranking Democrat on the foreign relations committee has been watching this administration's moves on Russia closely. Ben Cardin of Maryland is worried that this White House might try to ease sanctions.


BEN CARDIN: We think that's a fundamental policy shift for the United States that needs to be done in sunlight.

KELEMEN: Cardin worked with the committee chairman, Bob Corker, and others to come up with a plan to ensure that Congress gets to review any changes in Russia policy ahead of time. The senators attached their amendment to a popular Iran sanctions bill. The legislation would also provide aid to European countries to counter Russian disinformation.


CARDIN: We know that Russia is actively engaged in cyberattacks on democratic institutions. That we know. We experienced it firsthand.

KELEMEN: At today's budget hearing, Cardin had a chance to press Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on the sanctions which were initially meant to punish Russia for its aggression in Ukraine. Tillerson told the committee he wants flexibility as he tries to work with Russia.


REX TILLERSON: So we have some channels that are open where we're starting to talk. And I think what I wouldn't want to do is close the channels off.

KELEMEN: Talks with Russia on Syria are, in Tillerson's words, progressing in a positive way. But the secretary adds it's early.


TILLERSON: Our relationship's at an all-time low, and it's been deteriorating further. Our objective is to stabilize that.

KELEMEN: Tillerson took a tougher line on another country - Cuba. He says the Obama administration's opening created some business opportunities for Americans, but there is a, quote, "darker side to this."


TILLERSON: We have achieved very little in terms of changing the behavior of the regime in Cuba and its treatment of people. And it has little incentive today to change that. And in fact, our concern is they may be one of the biggest beneficiaries of all of this.

KELEMEN: The Trump administration is expected to announce on Friday that it will re-imposed some of the restrictions on Cuba that the Obama administration lifted. Today's hearing with Tillerson was supposed to focus on the Trump administration's budget. The secretary is defending a 30 percent cut in his department. But Chairman Bob Corker says he and his staff gave the proposals only a quick review.


BOB CORKER: And after about five minutes, I said, this is a total waste of time. I don't want to do this anymore. The budget this man presented is not going to be the budget we're going to deal with. It's just not.

KELEMEN: That's because senators on the foreign relations committee are frustrated by the lack of investment in diplomacy and development. They're also complaining about the slow pace of State Department appointments. Tillerson blames paperwork for those delays. He had a diplomatic development to share with the committee today. North Korea has just released a University of Virginia student held for a year and a half allegedly for stealing a propaganda poster from a hotel in the communist nation.


TILLERSON: At the president's direction, the Department of State has secured the release of Otto Warmbier from North Korea. We continue our discussions with the North Korean regime regarding the release of the three other American citizens that have been detained.

KELEMEN: Tillerson would not comment on Warmbier's condition, but the young man's family says he was brutalized in North Korea and is returning home in a coma. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.