Two of our senators did the right thing on Russia sanctions — and two were dead wrong

Trump backtracks on Russia interference comment

A day after President Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump is going back on comments he made during their joint press conference regarding Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election.
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A day after President Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump is going back on comments he made during their joint press conference regarding Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The U.S. Senate came shockingly close to doing the right thing this week, with the help of Republican Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Jerry Moran of Kansas. They voted to stand up against Russian President Vladimir Putin — and this time, anyway, against the Trump administration’s reflexively pro-Putin, pro-Russia lifting of sanctions against companies tied to a key Putin ally, Oleg Deripaska.

In the end, the measure fell just three votes short. Two of the votes to ease sanctions, which were put in place as a result of Russian interference in our 2016 election, came from Republican Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri and Pat Roberts of Kansas.

Holding the line on anti-democratic Russian aggression used to be a mainstay of Republican thought. But under President Donald Trump, who has even talked to aides about the possibility of the U.S. withdrawing from NATO — a move that would clearly thrill the Kremlin — that’s no longer the case.

If Blunt and Roberts had joined 11 of their Republican colleagues in putting country before party in this instance, perhaps the one last vote needed to move the measure forward would have materialized. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont skipped the vote to meet with aides from his 2016 presidential campaign, as The New York Times put it, to “quell anxiety over sexism” during that run.

The Trump administration, which was heavily lobbied to lift the sanctions against Deripaska’s companies, argued that it did so in December only after requiring Deripaska to dilute his ownership share of the world’s No. 2 aluminum producer, Rusal, and limit his influence over that and two related companies. But the president knows better than anyone how easily such limits can be skirted in reality while complied with on paper.

Asked about the thinking behind his vote, Roberts responded with a statement that did not defend his vote on the matter, but did criticize his colleagues for holding it. The vote, he said, “was about control of the Senate and partisan politics. The minority has stated the Senate should not consider any legislation that does not reopen the government ... The Senate voted on a resolution they knew did not have the votes to pass in order to score political points.”

Again, with Roberts, Blunt and Sanders, they would have had the votes to advance the measure.

Moran said in a statement that he’d decided differently: “I will not support the lifting of sanctions until President Putin and Russia changes its hostile behavior. There is no indication that Russian policy has changed, so now is not the time to lift sanctions.”

Hawley’s vote was more surprising, given that he’d previously declined to name any issue on which he and Trump might differ. During his first Judiciary Committee hearing, Hawley used his time to question Trump’s nominee for attorney general, William Barr, on the propriety of the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of whether Trump might even be acting as a Russian asset, wittingly or otherwise.

After the sanctions vote, Hawley said Deripaska “is still in working control” of his corporate empire. In a statement, Hawley said he voted against lifting sanctions because “Oleg Deripaska is a bad guy who still appears to be working in conjunction with Vladimir Putin. Until we know for certain that Deripaska no longer has control over these entities, we need to maintain the pressure.”

Deripaska, who has been credibly accused of crimes including murder, is also a former business partner of Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign chairman who was convicted of tax and bank fraud and pleaded guilty on two other charges.

Congress could act at any time to keep Trump from weakening sanctions on Russia. The administration initially delayed implementing the sanctions and then announced it would lift them, even as serious questions remain about Team Trump’s relationship with Russia, both during his campaign and since his election.

The president’s own lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, seemed to say as much in an interview on CNN on Wednesday: “I never said there was no collusion between the campaign or between people in the campaign” and Russia, he told an astonished-looking Chris Cuomo. “I said there’s not a single bit of evidence the president of the United States committed the only crime you can commit here — conspired with the Russians to hack the DNC.”

On Thursday, a symbolic House measure to enforce the sanctions passed easily, with 136 Republicans joining their Democratic colleagues. In introducing that resolution, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland noted that “Mr. Deripaska has been key to much of the malign activities Russia directs against the United States, and the Congress must protect the American people against foreign interference and corruption.”

You’d think they would, but they haven’t.