In advance of a call between President Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway confirmed Friday that ending sanctions on Russia is “under consideration.”
Senate Armed Services Committee chair John McCain (R-AZ) released a statement urging Trump to “reject such a reckless course,” and bluntly warning, “If he does not, I will work with my colleagues to codify sanctions against Russia into law.”
Yet team Trump is already working on an executive order to unilaterally end sanctions on Russia, according to Politico’s Susan Glasser. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes reported Thursday that such an order could come as early as this weekend. Trump’s call with Putin is scheduled for Saturday.
You might think the White House would move cautiously on ending sanctions, given the U.S. intelligence community’s finding that not only did Russia hack the U.S. election, but Putin did so to help Trump win. “We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump,” says a joint report from the CIA, FBI, and NSA.
To use McCain’s phrasing, “in the most flagrant demonstration of Putin’s disdain and disrespect for our nation, Russia deliberately interfered in our recent election with cyberattacks and a disinformation campaign designed to weaken America and discredit Western values.”
Lifting sanctions might appear to be a quid pro quo, given Russia’s involvement in the election. And that appearance of payback was magnified when Trump chose former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. As we’ve reported, both Russia’s and ExxonMobil’s futures depend on killing the sanctions, which blocked hundreds of billions of dollars in oil deals that Tillerson himself negotiated with Putin.
Putin is a “murderer and a thug who seeks to undermine American national security interests at every turn,” McCain said. “For our commander-in-chief to think otherwise would be naïve and dangerous.”
The problem for McCain is that Trump can eliminate most of the sanctions with the stroke of the pen. And, if the Senate were to, say, pass the bipartisan House-passed bill from last fall that codified the sanctions into law, Trump could simply invoke the “national security waiver” provision, effectively nullifying the law.
If McCain wanted to exert leverage on Trump, he and Lindsay Graham (R-SC) should have tied their support for Tillerson’s nomination to a commitment not to end the sanctions — rather than announcing last Sunday that they would reluctantly vote to confirm.
Still, Tillerson hasn’t been confirmed by the full Senate yet, so it’s not too late for McCain to reverse his position, assuming he truly believes what he wrote, that ending the sanctions is “such a reckless course” for this country.