President Donald Trump has reviewed the final version of Russia sanctions legislation and plans to sign it, the White House announced Friday night.
Trump read early drafts of the bill, negotiated elements of it and “based on its responsiveness to his negotiations, approves the bill and intends to sign it,” the White House statement said.
The legislation, which was sent to the White House on Friday, would sanction Russia while sharply limiting Trump’s ability to ease penalties against Moscow independently.
Rejecting the bill would have further galvanized resistance against the President and deepened concerns about possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. And Congress would have quickly overturned a veto — a public repudiation that would underscore the President’s impotence in this situation.
Signing the bill into law will send an inexperienced and undisciplined White House into an escalating confrontation with Russia at a time when safeguards to reduce tensions have eroded and domestic pressure in both countries will make it hard to reverse course.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Saturday that he hoped the legislation would spur Russia to seek a better relationship with Washington.
“The near unanimous votes for the sanctions legislation in Congress represent the strong will of the American people to see Russia take steps to improve relations with the United States,” Tillerson said in a statement. “We hope that there will be cooperation between our two countries on major global issues and these sanctions will no longer be necessary.”
But Russia will likely retaliate in ways that go beyond the expulsion of US diplomats and the seizure of American diplomatic recreation areas that took place Friday, said George Beebe, a former director of Russia analysis at the CIA, and others. Russia is likely to more actively work against US interests on the international stage.
“He is in a lose-lose situation here,” Beebe said. “There really are no good options for him on this.”
Russia announced that it was expelling American diplomats and seizing property after Congress passed the bill. Trump has repeatedly said he wants better relations with Moscow and, according to his communications director Anthony Scaramucci, still doubts Moscow’s involvement in the election campaign.
But there was “very little political space or rational for Trump to veto,” said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center, said prior to the White House announcement Friday night. He pointed to the FBI investigations into Russia’s ties to the campaign, Putin’s actions in Ukraine and Syria, and Friday’s actions against US diplomats. “There’s no rationale, no excuse for a veto,” Miller said. “None. It would be a form of political suicide.”
Russia’s move against US diplomats is delayed payback for an Obama administration decision in December to expel Russian envoys and seize their holiday compounds, a response to Moscow’s interference in the presidential election campaign.
Moscow said Friday that the US must reduce the staff at its embassy and consulates to 450, the same number Russia is allowed to have in the US. Moscow is also barring Americans from using two diplomatic facilities.
Russia had greeted Trump’s election victory with “euphoria,” confident it would usher in a new era of close cooperation and an easing of sanctions, said Angela Stent, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and Eastern European Studies.
With that in mind, President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia wouldn’t retaliate after the December sanctions, preferring to wait until the Trump administration moved into the White House.
Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn had to resign after his conversations with former Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak came to light, some of which are thought to have been about easing sanctions.
Flynn’s ouster was part of a trend that caused early Russian excitement about Trump to dissolve.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a statement Friday that while Russia has been doing “everything possible” to improve the relationship, “recent events showed that US policy was in the hands of Russophobic forces, pushing Washington to the path of confrontation.”
Indeed, lawmakers and analysts sounded confident that they hold the upper hand on managing the Russia relationship and it’s not likely to improve soon.
“Not only are the Democrats to a man and woman against any form of improving ties because they are angry about Russia’s election interference, but a lot of Republicans are concerned as well,” Stent said.
Republicans on Capitol Hill had downplayed the notion that Trump would actually consider vetoing the sanctions bill. Both Republicans and Democrats alike had predicted a swift veto override if Trump did try to thwart the measure.
“I think it’d be very unwise — it would be overridden immediately,” Oklahoma Republican Rep. Tom Cole said. “The President has every right to veto it, but it isn’t going to change the votes.”
Republican lawmakers also pointed to North Korea’s latest missile test as yet another reason for Trump to sign the bill, which also includes new sanctions against North Korea and Iran.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, who helped broker the Senate sanctions deal, said he spoke to both the President and Tillerson in recent days about the bill. Asked about a possible veto threat earlier in the week, Corker told reporters: “I don’t think that’s real.”
Beebe said Trump’s signature will confirm to the Russians “that he’s lost control of Russia policy.” And in that case, Stent said, Putin will come under pressure to act from his political right, hardline nationalists who see the US as Moscow’s greatest threat.
“He can’t not act,” she said. “He has to show Russia can’t be pushed around by the US.” As the danger of an escalatory tit-for-tat grows, mechanisms meant to prevent US-Russian confrontation have been breaking down, analysts said. Arms control agreements and confidence building measures between the two militaries have atrophied, said Beebe. And in some areas, such as cyberconflict, there are no rules of engagement at all.
Russians could strike out at the US in any number of ways, continuing to target the US diplomatic presence in Russia and US properties there, and escalating its harassment of US diplomats.
If the US pushes back in ways that put Moscow on edge, for instance, by arming Ukrainian rebels with lethal weapons, a prospect the Trump administration is considering, “there will be a very strong reaction and it will be asymmetric, a reaction in areas where we’re most vulnerable,” Beebe said.
Russia could actively work against US interests worldwide, Beebe suggested. “They’re going to hurt us on issues like North Korea, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba,” he said. CNN has reported that the US and Afghanistan have accused Russia of arming the Taliban, a charge Moscow denied.
One thing is clear, Beebe said. Friday’s exchange over US diplomats in Russia is “not the last thing the Russians are going to do and it’s not the last thing we’re going to do.”