Trump admin declines to impose new Russia sanctions

Posted at 8:54 PM, Jan 29, 2018
and last updated 2018-01-29 22:55:03-05

WASHNIGTON, D.C. - The Trump administration has declined to impose sanctions against companies and foreign countries doing business with blacklisted Russian defense and intelligence entities.

The administration was required by law to name the companies and individuals Monday, and possibly sanction them under a 2016 law meant to punish Russia for its interference in the 2016 US election, as well as its human rights violations, annexation of Crimea and ongoing military operations in eastern Ukraine.

A State Department official said that the administration had decided to put foreign governments and private sector entities "on notice ... that significant transactions with listed Russian entities will result in sanctions."

"Sanctions on specific entities or individuals will not need to be imposed because the legislation is, in fact, serving as a deterrent," the official said.

The announcement came on a day when the ongoing FBI investigation into President Donald Trump's potential campaign ties to Moscow during the 2016 election once again dominated the news, and once again raised questions about policy decisions his administration is making on Russia.

FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, long the target of Trump's ire toward the FBI over its investigation into possible collusion between his campaign and Russia, stepped down in a surprise move Monday. Trump's allies have recently intensified their campaign against the investigation, alleging FBI abuses of a surveillance law.

Critics were outraged.

"I'm fed up waiting for this administration to protect our country and our elections," Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement. "They've now shown us they won't act, so it's time for Congress to do more."

"The Trump administration had a decision to make whether they would follow the law and crack down on those responsible for attacking American democracy in 2016," Engel's statement said. "They chose instead to let Russia off the hook yet again. The State Department claims that the mere threat of sanctions will deter Russia's aggressive behavior. How do you deter an attack that happened two years ago, and another that's already underway? It just doesn't make sense."

CNN has learned that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signed off Monday morning on the measures, which had been due Monday under a law called the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. State Department officials briefed senators earlier today.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the department had told Congress the legislation was being implemented in such a way as to deter Russian defense sales. "Since the enactment of the CAATSA legislation, we estimate that foreign governments have abandoned planned or announced purchases of several billion dollars in Russian defense acquisitions," she said in a statement.

'Long time frames'

The State Department official said that, "given the long time frames generally associated with major defense deals, the results of this effort are only beginning to become apparent."

The Treasury Department was expected to release Monday the list of companies and individuals doing business with the Russian entities, along with two reports, all of them mandated by law. One report is expected to list wealthy Russian oligarchs with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and a second is expected to outline the impact of imposing sanctions on Russia's sovereign debt.

In an unclassified letter Monday to Rep. Ed Royce, the California Republican who's the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Tillerson wrote that he had instructed "all diplomatic posts" to reach out to their host nations and make "clear that we intended to robustly implement the law, that transactions determined to be significant were sanctionable, and that we would re-engage where necessary with more specific outreach."

The Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act was one of the first pieces of major legislation that Congress sent to Trump, who has refused to acknowledge fully Russia's interference in the 2016 US elections and has cast doubt on the consensus opinion of US intelligence agencies that Moscow did so.

The act passed with broad bipartisan support, clearing the Senate by 98-2, though Trump signed it into law reluctantly, declaring it "seriously flawed." Among other things, the law limits the President's ability to remove sanctions on Russia without lawmakers' approval. It also set two deadlines.

After the first missed deadline on October 1, Tillerson came under sharp criticism from lawmakers from both parties, who questioned why the Trump administration was almost a month late in meeting the deadline and whether the delay reflected reluctance from the White House to further sanction Moscow.

In his letter to Royce, Tillerson said the State Department provided guidance on "what constituted a 'significant' transaction that includes, but is not limited to, the significance of the transaction to US national security and foreign policy interests, including its relation to cyber misconduct; the nature and magnitude of the transaction; and the relation and significance of the transaction to Russia's defense and intelligence sectors more generally."

The letter closes with a request from Tillerson that "you protect the classified information" contained in an attached document.

'The administration should not rest'

Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released a statement that said "the administration provided a classified staff briefing today on US diplomatic efforts" to sanction those who conduct significant transactions with Russian defense and intelligence sectors, unless they can show substantial reductions in this trade.

"I appreciate the administration's engagement with Congress on this issue," said Cardin, an author of the measure. "I am not going to discuss the classified nature of these discussions, but I am intently focused on these sanctions and will continue to conduct rigorous oversight to ensure that the Russian government's ability to conduct this trade is significantly impeded."

"The US should be prepared to impose sanctions when the law is clearly violated," Cardin said. "The administration should not rest in these efforts and I expect a frequent and regular dialogue on this issue."

In Moscow, the announcement was being watched for anxiously, according to Alex Brideau, director of the program covering Russia, Eurasia and Ukraine at the Eurasia Group.

"Wealthy Russians are reported to be lobbying heavily in Washington, seeking legal advice regarding their foreign investments," Brideau said in a report, "and trying to distance themselves from the Kremlin."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the sanctions were "a direct and obvious attempt" by the US to interfere in Russia's upcoming presidential vote in March.

"We do think that this is a direct and obvious attempt to time some sort of action to coincide with our elections in order to influence them," Peskov told journalists on a telephone conference call Monday. "We disagree with this, and we are sure this will have no influence."