U.S. President Donald Trump has signed into law a sanctions bill he declared is “significantly flawed,” with “clearly unconstitutional provisions.”
The bill, aimed at penalizing Moscow for its interference in last year’s U.S. election, imposes fresh sanctions on Russia as well as Iran and North Korea. It also restricts the president’s authority to lift the sanctions without consulting Congress.
“By limiting the executive’s flexibility, this bill makes it harder for the United States to strike good deals for the American people, and will drive China, Russia, and North Korea much closer together,” Trump said in one of a pair of statements the White House issued Wednesday.
“Despite its problems, I am signing the bill for the sake of national unity,” the president’s statement said. “Since this bill was first introduced, I have expressed my concerns to Congress about the many ways it improperly encroaches on executive power, disadvantages American companies and hurts the interests of our European allies.”
Watch: White House Denies Trump Was Forced to Sign Russia Sanctions
The bill Trump signed was also characterized in one of the White House statements as sending “a clear message to Iran and North Korea that the American people will not tolerate their dangerous and destabilizing behavior. America will continue to work closely with our friends and allies to check those countries’ malignant activities,” the statement said.
There was no immediate reaction from North Korea. A senior government official in Tehran was quoted as saying the new U.S. sanctions violate the nuclear deal Iran reached with the United States and other major world powers two years ago, and that there would be a response from Iran’s leaders “in an appropriate and proportional manner.”
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said the new U.S. law is tantamount to a “full-scale trade war,” and the foreign ministry in Moscow said there could be countermeasures against the United States, above and beyond President Vladimir Putin’s order three days earlier sharply cutting back the size of the U.S. diplomatic mission in the Russian capital.
Russia’s new ambassador to the United Nations, Vassily Nebenzia, said the new sanctions law is “harming our relations inevitably, but we will be working in conditions that exist in the hope that it will turn one day.”
‘Sign of weakness’ by Trump
The bill gained near-unanimous approval in both houses of Congress, which would have allowed lawmakers to easily override any presidential veto of the bill.
House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi called on Republicans who hold the controlling majority on Capitol Hill to refuse to “permit the Trump White House to wriggle out of its duty to impose these sanctions for Russia’s brazen assault on our democracy.”
One Republican senator, Lindsey Graham, told a television interviewer (CNN) that Trump’s signing of the bill — without fanfare, without the customary audience of reporters and cameras — “reinforces the narrative [that] the Trump administration is not really serious about pushing back on Russia. And I think that is a mistake, too, because Putin will see this as a sign of weakness.”
The president’s statements made clear he did not want to sign the bill, George Washington University Associate Professor Henry Hale told VOA.
“The last thing Trump needs now politically is another embarrassing legislative defeat, so signing the bill with reservations lets him claim it as a victory, even as he prepares to work against key provisions of the bill, in implementation or through the courts,” said Hale, who directs the Program on New Approaches to Research and Security in Eurasia. PONARS Eurasia, based at the George Washington University, is a network of over 100 academic figures, primarily from North America and post-Soviet Eurasia.
The Russian government retaliated against the new sanctions even before Trump signed them into law, seizing two properties in Moscow used by the embassy and members of the American community, and also ordering an overall cutback of 755 staff positions at the Moscow embassy and three U.S. consulates in Russia — in St. Petersburg, Vladivostok and Yekaterinburg.
Most of the positions the U.S. was ordered to eliminate are filled by Russian nationals employed by the United States, but the extreme cutback, leaving the United States with 455 people in Russia, would greatly reduce the U.S. diplomatic presence there.
Obama’s sanctions are intact
The sanctions law sets new restrictions on U.S. companies working with Russian gas and oil companies, and codifies sanctions Obama imposed last year after learning about Russia’s meddling in U.S. politics. Before leaving office, Obama expelled about three dozen Russians holding diplomatic passports and closed two compounds in the U.S. used by the Russian community. American counterintelligence experts said many of the Russians expelled had been engaged in espionage, and that the Russian embassy similarly used the compounds outside Washington for intelligence gathering.
Trump has scoffed at investigations in Washington into the Russian meddling and accusations that his aides colluded with Moscow. He has said such allegations amount to a “witch hunt” aimed at him, and that Democrats have used the collusion scenario to explain away his upset win over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the November election.
The president’s lack of any criticism of Putin or his government has continued to surprise and confound both analysts and observers in Washington and elsewhere across the United States.
Is Russia a US adversary?
Professor Hale of GWU noted that Trump’s statements about the bill Wednesday appeared to be “particularly carefully worded” to avoid calling Russia an “adversary” of the United States, as is explicitly stated in the legislation.
“If the president continues to cozy up to Russia, lawmakers won’t hesitate to act,” said Elliot Engel, the senior Democratic congressman on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.