The Skeptics

Will the Russia Sanctions Bill Strip Trump of His Power?

It’s not everyday when Republicans and Democrats can hold together a dialogue over a period of months and come away with a good old-fashioned bipartisan piece of legislation. When they do, Washington and the rest of America rejoice. “Finally,” they may say, “the politicians that we send to Capitol Hill every two years are doing something constructive!”

You may think that this whole concept is a fanciful attempt to cling to a little hope, and that bipartisanship is as rare as the standing Senate filibuster or as mythical as the unicorn. But guess what? Senate Republicans and Democrats actually taught us all a lesson and produced something pretty significant of substance. And we have Russian president Vladimir Putin to thank, because he’s one of the only world leaders whose reputation is so terrible in Washington that it drags the most firebrand conservative and dogmatic liberal around the same table. Indeed, bashing Putin, Russia and anyone associated with Putin or Russia has been the Washington fad ever since the Kremlin’s “little green men” invaded the Crimean Peninsula and lent military support to pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s Donbass. Lawmakers of both parties love to sound tough, act tough, and be tough against Moscow; passing more economic sanctions on Russian government-owned industries, businesses, or sectors of the economy is most powerful way to demonstrate that tough stance.

The Russian Sanctions Review Act, which Congress worked on over a period of months and Republican and Democratic leadership in the Senate chamber finally endorsed earlier this week, is the kind of sanctions bill that appeals to everybody. It’s a lengthy piece of legislation, but the bill essentially codifies the Obama-era executive orders on Russia already on the books, expands banking restrictions on individuals or entities that finance—or materially and technology support—cyber attacks on a government or election systems, mandates asset freezes on Russian human-rights violators, and, most significantly, makes it impossible for President Trump (or any future president) to relax or abolish sanctions without allowing members of Congress to review and vote on the matter first. In sum: the bill uses Obama’s sanctions architecture as a base and provides far more oversight power to the legislative branch that it would normally possess.

The bill has made Russia hawks like John McCain, Lindsey Graham and pretty much everybody else in the Republican Party happier than they have been in a very long time. McCain has been pushing his colleagues to throw the hammer on Putin for as long as anybody can remember. And we all know that Moscow deserves it; you can’t meddle in the U.S. electoral system, hack the email servers of the Democratic National Committee, leak emails to the press and think you can get away with it. Lest we forget, Russia has been undermining U.S. national-security interests in several major portfolios, whether it be Ukraine, Syria, Libya, or just a general respect for international norms of behavior. Nobody inside or outside of the U.S. government can sit in their offices and argue that the Russians have been helpful or that the Russians haven’t engaged in nefarious activity.

But here’s the thing: just because Republicans and Democrats can agree on a sanctions bill and pass it by an overwhelming count (97–2) doesn’t automatically mean that it’s a smart bill. Congress is certainly entitled to register its displeasure and be a full, proactive participant in the development of U.S. foreign policy. But the president of the United States, as the chief executive of the country's foreign policy, is also entitled to a certain degree of flexibility in order to search for diplomatic breakthroughs that may arise.

During hearings at the appropriations and foreign-relations committees, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has argued that the Trump administration must be afforded the opportunity to look for deals, carry on a dialogue with adversarial nations and competitors, and retain the diplomatic carrots that could persuade a leader like “Vladimir the Great” to perhaps play ball. Senators didn’t really like Tillerson’s answer because it was a not-so-indirect criticism of the bipartisan sanctions bill that they voted through this month. Yet it is irresponsible and short-sighted for senators to simply interpret Tillerson's comments as proof that the Trump administration is desperate to get on Putin's good side. And it would be just as irresponsible to ignore Tillerson's concerns as unwarranted, particularly when Russia will continue to be a significant global player.

Negotiating with Russian diplomats is a painful, migraine-inducing process on a good day. But it would be a waste of time if the White House or State Department couldn’t offer Moscow an object that is shiny enough to get its attention. Take that shiny object away, and any incentive that Putin may have had to negotiate constructively evaporates. Can we really anticipate Russian cooperation in the future if all that Secretary Tillerson can offer to Moscow in return is a promise that he’ll work very, very hard to convince Congress to ease the sanctions—and that maybe that venture will be successful? What rational actor in the state system would find that deal appealing?