As Congress acts to punish Russia,Trump caught in a bind

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Washington: Congressional leaders have reached an agreement on sweeping sanctions legislation to punish Russia for its election meddling and aggression toward its neighbours, they said on Saturday, defying the White House’s argument that US President Donald Trump needs flexibility to adjust the sanctions to fit his diplomatic initiatives with Moscow.

The new legislation sharply limits the President’s ability to suspend or terminate the sanctions – a remarkable handcuffing by a Republican-led Congress six months into Trump’s tenure.

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Trump could soon face a decision: veto the bill – a move that would fuel accusations that he is doing the bidding of the Kremlin – or sign legislation imposing sanctions his administration abhors.

“A nearly united Congress is poised to send [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin a clear message on behalf of the American people and our allies, and we need President Trump to help us deliver that message,” said Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The White House has not publicly spoken about the legislation. But two senior administration officials said they could not imagine Trump vetoing it in the current political atmosphere, even if he regards it as interfering with his executive authority to conduct foreign policy.

The legislative push comes as Trump’s eldest son and his son-in-law prepare to face senators over presidential campaign ties to Russia.

But as ever, Trump retains the capacity to surprise, and this would be his first decision about whether to veto a significant bill.

He received succour from an unexpected quarter when European allies expressed concern over the bill.

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin at last week's G20. No one has a clue what bargains were struck between the two leaders. Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin at last week’s G20. No one has a clue what bargains were struck between the two leaders. Photo: AP

In a statement after congressional Republicans and Democrats reached agreement, the European Commission warned of possibly “wide and indiscriminate” “unintended consequences”, notably on the European Union’s efforts to diversify energy sources away from Russia.

Germany has already warned of possible retaliation if the US moves to sanction German firms involved with building a new Baltic pipeline for Russian gas.  

Russian military personnel surround a Ukrainian military base on March 19, 2014. Russian military personnel surround a Ukrainian military base on March 19, 2014. Photo: Getty Images

The legislation also encompasses new sanctions against Iran and North Korea, two countries the administration has been eager to punish for its activities.

A sanctions package had stalled in the Republican-led House for weeks after winning near-unanimous support in the Senate last month. Democrats accused Republicans of delaying quick action on the bill at the behest of the Trump administration, which had asked for more flexibility in its relationship with Russia and took up the cause of energy companies, defence contractors and other financial players who suggested that certain provisions could harm US businesses.

Bloodied teddy bears are seen during a demonstration against Russian military operations in Syria in Berlin in October 2016. Bloodied teddy bears are seen during a demonstration against Russian military operations in Syria in Berlin in October 2016. Photo: Getty Images

The House version of the bill includes a small number of changes, technical and substantive, from the Senate legislation, including some made in response to concerns raised by oil and gas companies.

But for the most part, the Republican leadership appears to have rejected most of the White House’s objections. The bill aims to punish Russia not only for interference in the election but also for its annexation of Crimea, continuing military activity in eastern Ukraine and human rights abuses. Proponents of the measure seek to impose sanctions on people involved in human rights abuses, suppliers of weapons to the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and those undermining cybersecurity, among others.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said he hoped to see the legislation come into force soon. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said he hoped to see the legislation come into force soon. Photo: AP

Paired with the sanctions against Iran and North Korea, the House version of the bill was set for a vote Tuesday, according to the office of Republican congressman Kevin McCarthy.

There are still hurdles to clear. Neither House Speaker Paul Ryan nor Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell immediately issued statements to give the agreements their blessing.

Republican senator John McCain is an avid proponent of further sanctions against Moscow. Republican senator John McCain is an avid proponent of further sanctions against Moscow. Photo: AP

Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer  said he expected this “strong” bill to reach the president’s desk promptly “on a broad bipartisan basis”.

The delays in the House had become a source of deep frustration among some Russia hawks, including Arizona senator John McCain before he left Washington for medical treatment for a brain tumour.

“Pass it, for Christ’s sake,” he said to his House colleagues, as the measure languished last week over technical concerns raised mostly by Republicans.

New York Times, Reuters

http://www.watoday.com.au/world/as-congress-acts-to-punish-russiatrump-caught-in-a-bind-20170723-gxgtl0.html

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