White House: Trump to sign Russia sanctions bill

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WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has reviewed the final version of Russia sanctions legislation and plans to sign it, the White House announced Friday night.

Trump read early drafts of the bill, negotiated elements of it and “based on its responsiveness to his negotiations, approves the bill and intends to sign it,” the White House statement said.

The legislation, which was sent to the White House on Friday, would sanction Russia while sharply limiting Trump’s ability to ease penalties against Moscow independently.

Rejecting the bill would have further galvanized resistance against the president and deepened concerns about possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

And Congress would have quickly overturned a veto — a public repudiation that would underscore the president’s impotence in this situation.

Signing the bill into law will send an inexperienced and undisciplined White House into an escalating confrontation with Russia at a time when safeguards to reduce tensions have eroded and domestic pressure in both countries will make it hard to reverse course.

Russia will likely retaliate in ways that go beyond the expulsion of U.S. diplomats and the seizure of American diplomatic recreation areas that took place Friday, said George Beebe, a former director of Russia analysis at the CIA, and others.

Russia is likely to more actively work against U.S. interests on the international stage.

“He is in a lose-lose situation here,” Beebe said. “There really are no good options for him on this.”

Russia announced it was expelling American diplomats and seizing property after Congress passed the bill.

Trump has repeatedly said he wants better relations with Moscow and, according to communications director Anthony Scaramucci, still doubts Moscow’s involvement in the election campaign.

But there was “very little political space or rational for Trump to veto,” said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center, before the White House announcement.

He pointed to the FBI investigations into Russia’s ties to the campaign, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine and Syria, and Friday’s actions against U.S. diplomats.

“There’s no rationale, no excuse for a veto,” Miller said. “None. It would be a form of political suicide.”

Russia’s move against U.S. diplomats is delayed payback for an Obama administration decision in December to expel Russian envoys and seize their holiday compounds, a response to Moscow’s interference in the presidential election campaign.

Moscow said Friday that the U.S. must reduce the staff at its embassy and consulates to 450, the same number Russia is allowed to have in the U.S. Moscow is also barring Americans from using two diplomatic facilities.

Russia had greeted Trump’s election victory with “euphoria,” confident it would usher in a new era of close cooperation and an easing of sanctions, said Angela Stent, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and Eastern European Studies.

With that in mind, Putin announced Russia wouldn’t retaliate after the December sanctions, preferring to wait until the Trump administration moved into the White House.

Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn had to resign after his conversations with former Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak came to light, some of which are thought to have been about easing sanctions.

Flynn’s ouster was part of a trend that caused early Russian excitement about Trump to dissolve.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a statement Friday that while Russia has been doing “everything possible” to improve the relationship, “recent events showed that U.S. policy was in the hands of Russophobic forces, pushing Washington to the path of confrontation.”

Indeed, lawmakers and analysts sounded confident that they hold the upper hand on managing the Russia relationship and it’s not likely to improve soon.

“Not only are the Democrats to a man and woman against any form of improving ties because they are angry about Russia’s election interference, but a lot of Republicans are concerned as well,” Stent said.

Republicans on Capitol Hill had downplayed the notion that Trump would actually consider vetoing the sanctions bill.

Republicans and Democrats had predicted a swift veto override if Trump did try to thwart the measure.

“I think it’d be very unwise — it would be overridden immediately,” Oklahoma Republican Rep. Tom Cole said. “The president has every right to veto it, but it isn’t going to change the votes.”

Republican lawmakers also pointed to North Korea’s latest missile test as yet another reason for Trump to sign the bill, which also includes new sanctions against North Korea and Iran.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, who helped broker the Senate sanctions deal, said he spoke to the president and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in recent days about the bill.

Asked about a possible veto threat earlier in the week, Corker told reporters: “I don’t think that’s real.”

Beebe said Trump’s signature will confirm to the Russians “that he’s lost control of Russia policy.” And in that case, Stent said, Putin will come under pressure to act from his political right, hardline nationalists who see the U.S. as Moscow’s greatest threat.

“He can’t not act,” she said. “He has to show Russia can’t be pushed around by the U.S.”

As the danger of an escalatory tit-for-tat grows, mechanisms meant to prevent U.S.-Russian confrontation have been breaking down, analysts said.

Arms control agreements and confidence building measures between the two militaries have atrophied, said Beebe. And in some areas, such as cyberconflict, there are no rules of engagement at all.

Russians could strike out at the U.S. in any number of ways, continuing to target the U.S. diplomatic presence in Russia and U.S. properties there, and escalating its harassment of U.S. diplomats.

If the U.S. pushes back in ways that put Moscow on edge, for instance, by arming Ukrainian rebels with lethal weapons, a prospect the Trump administration is considering, “there will be a very strong reaction and it will be asymmetric, a reaction in areas where we’re most vulnerable,” Beebe said.

Russia could actively work against U.S. interests worldwide, Beebe suggested.

“They’re going to hurt us on issues like North Korea, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba,” he said.

The U.S. and Afghanistan have accused Russia of arming the Taliban, a charge Moscow denied.

One thing is clear, Beebe said. Friday’s exchange over U.S. diplomats in Russia is “not the last thing the Russians are going to do and it’s not the last thing we’re going to do.”