National Security & Defense

On Russia, Can Congress Save Trump from Himself?

Donald Trump speaks in the East Room of the White House (Reuters: Carlos Barria)
If the House stalls or waters down the tough sanctions bill, Trump wins by losing.

It doesn’t happen very often, but on at least one issue, Donald Trump is acting like a normal president. Unfortunately, in this rare instance, he’s actually doing something not only wrongheaded but self-destructive. Instead of letting Trump have his way and preserve the power of the executive branch on foreign policy by not enforcing tough sanctions on Russia, congressional Republicans need to save Trump from himself.

The interesting thing about Trump’s effort to derail a sanctions bill that passed the Senate by a 97–2 margin is that he is defending an unorthodox policy position with a very traditional defense of presidential power.

The Russia sanctions, which are intended as a punishment for Moscow’s attempt to intervene in the 2016 presidential election, were appended to a very popular bill aimed at holding Iran accountable for its support of international terrorism and illegal missile testing. But as much as Trump supports more sanctions on Iran, he opposes them on Russia.

In this, Trump is the mirror image of the Obama administration, which supported Russia sanctions after the collapse of its comical “reset” effort but fought tooth and nail against efforts to isolate Tehran. While détente with Iran via a weak nuclear deal was the keynote of Obama’s foreign policy, his successor has the same ambition for relations with Russia and seeks to defend his goal with the same tactics. Trump wants any sanctions bill to have the same waiver options that allowed Obama to delay and ultimately defeat congressional efforts to pressure Iran.

Trump has two assets in this fight to nullify a rare example of bipartisan consensus. One is that this decision falls within the traditional prerogative of the executive branch of government. Every administration of both political parties has shared a desire to prevent Congress from dabbling in foreign policy. That’s especially true for sanctions bills that are both political signals to key constituencies and attempts to limit the ability of any president to cut deals with unpopular regimes.

That’s the key talking point that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is using as he seeks to persuade the House not to rubber-stamp the Senate’s Russia sanctions, even though the measure is as popular there as it is in the upper house. Tillerson wants to have the flexibility to negotiate with Moscow, and he fears, as Obama always did about Iran sanctions, that the current bill will anger Vladimir Putin enough to derail the administration’s ambition for a new start with Russia even before he begins.

Trump’s second ace in the hole is the fact that a considerable portion of the House GOP caucus fears getting into a confrontation with Trump. Should the bill pass and Trump make good on a veto threat, it would place many House conservatives in a very uncomfortable position. Few of those representing deep-red districts where Trump is popular will want to explain to their constituents why they voted to overturn Trump’s first veto, even if it was in defense of their principles on Russia.

A desire to avoid a fight with Trump on an issue that he seems to care about may be what has motivated House GOP leaders to stall passage of the Senate bill even though it has overwhelming support on both sides of the aisle. On Tuesday, Ways and Means Committee chair Kevin Brady (Tex.) put a hold on the bill via a procedural objection, and House majority leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) appears to be backing him up in alleging that the Senate “screwed up” when it passed the measure. The upshot of this is that a lengthy process of rewriting and repassing sanctions will allow the administration to water down the bill, if not to spike it altogether.

A lengthy process of rewriting and repassing sanctions will allow the administration to water down the bill, if not to spike it altogether.

But House Republican leaders need to rethink their willingness to go along with Trump on this issue. Speaker Paul Ryan needs to do the president the favor of not letting him have his way.

Whether Trump and Tillerson understand it or not, the optics of the White House’s deploying a heavy-handed lobbying effort to prevent the passage of sanctions on Russia are terrible. Even if Republicans believe, as they probably should at this point, that there is no proof backing up the accusations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, it is still an atrocious idea for Trump to be seen defending his constitutional right to appease Putin.

But even if we ignore the bad odor that would attach to administration efforts that will, not unreasonably, be viewed as a defense of Russian interests, opposing sanctions is exactly the wrong way to approach negotiations with Putin. Trump rightly opposed Obama’s willingness to give Iran the gift of lifting sanctions before Tehran gave up anything of value in the nuclear talks. His own efforts to play the same weak game with Russia are equally misguided.

If Trump had not already demonstrated a baffling willingness to excuse or ignore Russia’s provocations and crimes, he might have more of a leg to stand on in defense of his executive-branch rights. But his refusal to be honest about Russian election meddling — because he wrongly views the entire discussion to be an attempt to discredit his victory — and his rationalizations for Putin’s authoritarian ways and aggression against Ukraine mean he doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt usually given to presidents on foreign-policy issues.

Passing the sanctions won’t stop Tillerson from making a mutually beneficial deal with Russia about Ukraine, Syria, the war against ISIS, or any other point of contention, if one can be had. To the contrary, it will strengthen his hand — just as the sanctions on Iran passed by Congress over Obama’s objections made the U.S. position stronger, before former secretary of state Kerry threw away those advantages because of his impatient lust for a deal of any kind.

More importantly, if the House echoes the Senate consensus, it will spare Trump from being seen as a Putin ally at a moment in history when making Democrats’ impeachment talk sound reasonable is the last thing he should want. If the House winds up killing sanctions, it will hand Democrats a stick with which they can beat both Trump and Republicans. They will richly deserve every blow they absorb.

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