Nothing unites the parties like mistrust of the president.
Congress has handcuffed Donald Trump on Russia.
On Thursday night, sanctions legislation targeting Russia soared through the Senate by a margin of 98-2 just days after it coasted through the House of Representatives 419-3.
So it’s official: One of the first major pieces of bipartisan legislation to pass Congress during Trump’s presidency has been explicitly designed to sharply limit his powers.
The bill takes Obama-era sanctions against Russia that are in place under executive orders — that is, directives that only the president has authority to enact and rescind — and officially enshrines them in the law. It also establishes a new congressional review process that would allow Congress to block the White House from taking steps to ease sanctions if it wanted to. And it imposes a fresh batch of sanctions on Russia, Iran, and North Korea.
Trump now faces an awkward dilemma: veto the legislation and endure the humiliation of seeing Congress — controlled by his own party — override him with ease, as lawmakers in both parties have pledged to do. Or sign the legislation and endure the humiliation of agreeing to a bill that his administration lobbied against in its bid to cling to a key bargaining chip in negotiations with Russia.
Trump wanted to keep sanctions under his control as he angles to turn things around in the rapidly souring US-Russian relationship. Moscow despises US sanctions, and their removal would be central to any kind of major reset between the two countries.
But now that’s not happening, and Russia has already made its fury over the legislation plain: On Friday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry announced that it was cutting the number of US diplomatic personnel in Russia down to a number that matches the number of Russian diplomatic personnel in the US.
Russia also says that within days it will seize a dacha, or country house, outside Moscow that US personnel use, as well as a storage facility.
“Any new unilateral actions by the US authorities to reduce the number of our diplomats in the United States will be met with a mirror response,” the ministry promised in a statement.
Russia has lost interest in Trump’s outreach
The response is a major setback for Trump’s ambition to turn over a new leaf with Russia, and stands in stark contrast to Moscow’s response to the last time the US took strong actions against it.
Back in December, after President Obama announced a raft of new sanctions against Russia and the expulsion of dozens of Russian diplomats from the US as a penalty for its meddling in the 2016 election, Vladimir Putin refrained from retaliation. No diplomats were ejected from Russia; no compounds were seized. In fact, he went a step further, inviting the children of US diplomats to join Christmas parties in the Kremlin. And there was only one reason he did that: He was optimistic about Trump’s interest in warming ties with Moscow and wanted to give him a chance to reverse Obama’s sanctions.
That window of opportunity appears to have closed, and it’s Trump’s own fault.
The Republican Party has extraordinary strategic discipline. They haven’t been particularly keen on hitting Trump hard with investigations over his inner circle’s ties to Russia during the campaign, but they do realize how politically risky it is for Trump to have free rein to lift sanctions on his own while he’s being investigated.
Many of them also genuinely think that Putin will play Trump for a fool in any deal they strike, and want to make sure he doesn’t give away the US’s biggest bargaining chip without them having a say in it.
Now Trump has to decide how he wants to react to this. Will he veto the bill and then slam the GOP in the likely case that it overrules him, or will he sign it and try to claim that the bill shows he’s not in Russia’s pocket? One way or another, we should know soon: Once Trump formally receives the bill, he has just 10 days to make a decision.