Senate Advances Resolution To Block Trump From Easing Sanctions On Russian Firms

Eleven Republicans bucked the Trump administration on easing sanctions on companies connected to a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

WASHINGTON ― The Senate on Tuesday voted to advance a resolution that would reverse the Trump administration’s decision to relax sanctions on three Russian companies linked to oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Eleven Republicans joined all Democrats in supporting the resolution in a 57-42 vote ― a major rebuke of Trump administration officials who mounted a last-minute lobbying effort led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to table the measure.

But while the resolution advanced on Tuesday with a simple majority vote, it will require 60 votes to proceed to final passage ― a much tougher bar to clear. And even if it somehow reaches Trump’s desk, the president would likely veto it.

The Treasury Department announced last month its plan to lift sanctions imposed on the core businesses of aluminum magnate Deripaska, including EN+, Rusal and energy firm JSC EuroSibEnergo. Administration officials argued that Deripaska sufficiently divested control of the firms and that as a result, the firms are no longer in violation of sanctions law.

Mnuchin also framed the issue as a matter of global trade in a meeting with Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, arguing that not lifting the sanctions on the Deripaska-linked aluminum producing companies would benefit other aluminum producers like China.

But Democrats and even some Republicans expressed skepticism about the Trump administration’s ability to enforce the agreement they reached with the companies to limit Deripaska’s control.

“I could make a very compelling argument I think that he would have control remain,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said Tuesday of Deripaska.

Asked why he joined Democrats in supporting the resolution on Tuesday, Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), meanwhile, said he did so because Deripaska is “a gangster.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) also expressed concern about Deripaska’s deep ties with Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, who was convicted of financial crimes as a result of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia.

“Given Mr. Deripaska’s potential involvement with Paul Manafort and the fact that the Special Counsel’s Russia investigation has not yet concluded its work, it’s all the more reason these sanctions must remain in place,” Schumer said in a statement, adding later that removing the sanctions would amount to a “favor” to Putin.

Schumer was able to force a vote on the matter under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which allowed the Democratic leader to bring a privileged resolution of disapproval of the easing of sanctions to the floor for a vote in the Senate. Under the law, the resolution must be passed by both the House and Senate by Jan. 17, 2019.

Democrats’ effort to block the Trump administration from easing sanctions on Deripaska comes amid increasing concern about President Donald Trump’s behavior toward Russia and habit of being friendly with its president Putin. 

Trump on Monday denied having ever worked for the Russian government after a report published last week indicated the FBI opened an investigation in 2017 into whether he had been an agent of the Kremlin. Another report detailing how Trump has “gone to extraordinary lengths” to hide his interactions with the Russian president, including in one instance taking possession of meeting notes from his own interpreter after a meeting with the Russian leader, prompted concern from some Republicans on Capitol Hill.

“I think it’s inappropriate for the president ... to communicate with the president of another global power without having people there keeping careful records. ... That is an enormous mistake and should not be repeated,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said in an interview with CNN.

But Romney, who once called Russia the U.S.’s biggest geopolitical foe, on Tuesday declined to support the resolution seeking to overturn sanctions on Russian firms owned by a top ally to Putin. 

“We have no choice but to execute the law as it was written,” Romney told reporters before the vote, appearing to agree with Trump administration officials that the companies sufficiently distanced themselves from their oligarch owner.