August 11, 2017

The sanctions law

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On August 2, President Donald Trump grudgingly signed into law the bill on sanctions against Russia, Iran and North Korea, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which had been passed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both the House of Representatives (419-3) and the Senate (98-2).

Though the White House said on July 28 that the president had decided to sign the legislation, and Vice-President Mike Pence declared in Tbilisi on August 1 that the president would sign the bill “soon,” there was still that chance that Mr. Trump might not. Furthermore, we were comforted by the vice-president’s words that “The president and our Congress are unified in our message to Russia.” He also reiterated that “A better relationship, the lifting of sanctions will require Russia to reverse the actions that caused sanctions to be imposed in the first place.”

We breathed a collective sigh of relief when we saw the breaking news that Wednesday morning that President Trump had signed the bill. Soon afterwards, however, our elation over this victory for our cause was tempered by President Trump’s statement that the law is “seriously flawed” – “particularly because it encroaches on the executive branch’s authority to negotiate” – and his suggestion that he might not fully implement the sanctions.

In his written statement, the president noted: “By limiting the executive’s flexibility, this bill makes it harder for the United States to strike good deals for the American people, and will drive China, Russia and North Korea much closer together. The framers of our Constitution put foreign affairs in the hands of the president. …Yet despite its problems, I am signing this bill for the sake of national unity. It represents the will of the American people to see Russia take steps to improve relations with the United States. We hope there will be cooperation between our two countries on major global issues so that these sanctions will no longer be necessary. …”

At the end of the statement, the president added: “I built a truly great company worth many billions of dollars. That is a big part of the reason I was elected. As president, I can make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress.”

Quite obviously, the president was angry that he was forced to sign a bill he disliked because it was veto-proof – had he not signed it, Congress had the votes to override his veto. The next day, Mr. Trump tweeted: “Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low. You can thank Congress, the same people that can’t even give us HCare!” So much for the unity between the president and Congress with regard to Russia that the vice-president had cited…

Sen. John McCain(R-Ariz.) criticized the president’s comments. “Vladimir Putin and his regime must pay a real price for attacking our democracy, violating human rights, occupying Crimea and destabilizing Ukraine.” He added, “Going forward, I hope the president will be as vocal about Russia’s aggressive behavior as he was about his concerns with this legislation.”

Of course, Moscow weighed in, calling President’s Trump decision to sign the sanctions bill a sign of complete weakness, saying the law is “short-sighted and dangerous,” as a result of “Russophobic hysteria” and amounts to a “fully-fledged trade war.” Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev commented: “Trump’s administration has demonstrated total impotence by surrendering its executive authority to Congress in the most humiliating way.”

But the U.S. Congress was right to affirm its bipartisan conviction that Russia must be punished for meddling in the U.S. presidential election, annexing Crimea and invading Ukraine, and right to assert its authority to review any potential easing or lifting of sanctions. All the more so because President Trump has been strangely silent on some of Russia’s actions and dismissive or in outright denial about others.

Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic minority leader, said of the president’s statement on signing the sanctions bill that it “demonstrates that Congress is going to need to keep a sharp eye on this administration’s implementation of this critical law and any actions it takes with respect to Ukraine.” And Sen. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, stated, “I remain very concerned that this administration will seek to strike a deal with Moscow that is not in the national security interests of the United States.” To that we add our concern about any potential deal that might accept Russia’s annexation or occupation of Ukrainian territory. No deal, Mr. President!

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