In June, the Senate passed a bill codifying U.S. sanctions on Russia. The bill—based on a series of Obama-era executive orders retaliating for Russia’s de facto invasion of Ukraine and, later, its meddling in the U.S. elections—passed the Senate by an overwhelming margin: 98-2.
The lopsidedness of that vote signified that there is overwhelming support across the country for a much tougher stance on Russia, and, equally, that lawmakers of both parties have no confidence in Donald Trump’s judgment on the subject of Russia.
The bill, now before the House, would force the president to seek congressional approval before easing the sanctions. The administration has been lobbying lawmakers to remove this provision. That’s understandable, inasmuch as the president’s power unilaterally to ease or lift sanctions can be a useful tool by which to encourage favorable conduct from a global miscreant. In more ordinary circumstances, the administration’s objection would have some merit.
But these are not more ordinary circumstances. These are circumstances in which the president has no capacity to set policy toward Russia. Whether the media has unfairly targeted the president and his advisers over their dealings with Russian officials is now beside the point. By a series of unforced errors—omissions of financial dealings with Russian companies, unaccountably faulty memories on meetings with Kremlin-connected operatives—the Trump team has lost all credibility on the question of Russia. Second-guessing by the media and politicians of both parties will be the inevitable accompaniment to every White House announcement about Vladimir Putin or Russia.
All this casts the White House’s objections to the sanctions bill in the worst possible light. Maybe President Trump isn’t looking for a way to be soft on Putin, but it looks that way. The president’s preposterous suggestion that the two countries set up a joint “Cyber Security unit” to guard against election manipulation—“so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded”—makes it look even worse.
And what would the White House think it can accomplish with the authority to loosen sanctions, anyway? Does anybody think Putin’s government is anywhere near ready to engage in good-faith negotiations in response to economic sanctions? Surely not even this president believes he can he can get Russia to consider respecting Ukraine’s borders, for example, or to cease from meddling in the elections of democratic adversaries.