The most consequential piece of legislation that the Republican-led Congress has delivered to President Donald Trump after seven months is a new package of financial penalties against Russia that he didn’t want to sign into law.
But he’s going to. He would have faced a political firestorm if he rejected the legislation.
The House overwhelmingly backed the bill, 419-3, and the Senate rapidly following their lead on a 98-2 vote. Those massive margins guaranteed that Congress would be able to beat back any possible attempt by Trump to reject the measure. The legislation, which also punishes Iran and North Korea, takes aim at Moscow for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and for its military aggression in Ukraine and Syria.
Provisions backed by Republican and Democrats would handcuff Trump on the Russia sanctions due to worries among lawmakers that he may ease the financial hits without first securing concessions from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Republicans refused to budge even after the White House complained that the “congressional review” infringed on Trump’s executive authority.
But as Trump faced the embarrassing possibility of being overruled by his own party, the White House announced late Friday that he “approves the bill and intends to sign it.” The statement from press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also said Trump “read early drafts of the bill and negotiated regarding critical elements of it.” She didn’t specify the “critical elements,” and lawmakers have said the White House was largely absent as they crafted the legislation.
In a statement Saturday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the near unanimous votes “represent the strong will of the American people to see Russia take steps to improve relations with the United States.” He said he hoped for cooperation with Russia that would make the sanctions unnecessary.
That a bill to hit back at Russia would be the singular accomplishment so far underscores how the angrily contested 2016 election continues to reverberate on Capitol Hill. But it’s also a product of Trump’s own making — and one he failed or refused to see developing in Congress.
Instead of looking for way to retaliate against Moscow, Trump openly challenged the findings of his own intelligence agencies, which concluded Russia had interfered with the intention of tipping the election in his behalf. And he pursued a warmer relationship with Putin, convinced that Washington and the Kremlin could work together on shared interests, such as counterterrorism and Syria.
But a vast majority of congressional Republicans have long viewed Russia as the enemy. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., spoke for a large swath of his caucus when he recently declared himself a “Russia hawk.”
Their misgivings were reinforced by Trump’s defense secretary, retired Marine Corps Gen. Jim Mattis, who said during his confirmation hearing in January that “history isn’t a straitjacket,” but a guide for dealing with Moscow. He said there have been many attempts by the United States over the years to try anew with Russia, but the list of successes was short.
Mattis’ opinion hadn’t shifted several months later when he told the House Armed Services Committee that he’d yet to see “any indication that Mr. Putin would want a positive relationship with us.”
Still, House and Senate leaders had agreed to give Tillerson time to, as Sen. Bob Corker said, “change the trajectory of the U.S. relationship with Russia,” especially in Syria, where the Kremlin backs President Bashar Assad. But Corker, the Tennessee Republican who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and his GOP colleagues ran out of patience in late May.
“I see no difference whatsoever,” Corker said, signaling he would throw his support behind legislation to penalize Russia.
A bill to punish both Russia and Iran cleared the Senate on June 15 with 98 votes. Yet Trump remained bullish on the prospect of working with Putin.
At an international summit in Germany this month, Trump met several times with Putin, but the American president declined to publicly give the kind of condemnation that his staff insisted he deliver to the Russian leader over Moscow’s election interference. And he let a challenge from Putin, who said Trump accepted his denial of Russian involvement in the 2016 election, go largely unanswered.
A team of House and Senate negotiators late last week resolved several lingering issues with the sanctions bill and also agreed to add the North Korea penalties. The sanctions against North Korea took on added urgency after the North on Friday test-fired its second intercontinental ballistic missile, which flew longer and higher than its first ICBM launched earlier this month.
Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said after the latest test that he expects Trump to sign the legislation “without delay.”
Left intact, however, was the congressional review section of the bill. Trump had privately expressed frustration that Congress was demanding the ability to limit or override the power of the White House on national security matters.
Yet no one emerged in Congress to be Trump’s champion.
The House easily backed the sanctions on Tuesday, and two days later, in the midst of health care, the Senate cleared the bill and sent it to the president.
Despite the imposing numbers, Trump’s new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, suggested before the Senate’s vote on Thursday that the president still might veto the bill and use his prowess as a dealmaker to “negotiate an even tougher deal against the Russians.”
But Corker quickly threw cold water on that idea. If Trump were to reject the bill, he said, Congress could unquestionably overrule him and that would sting.
“It shows a diminishment of their authority,” Corker said of presidents who have their vetoes countermanded. “I just don’t think that’s a good way to start off as president.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Richard Lardner has covered defense and foreign policy issues for The Associated Press since 2007.