Tillerson dismisses criticism on Russia sanctions amid growing questions
Congress has mandated new sanctions be imposed.
By CONOR FINNEGAN
February 19, 2018, 10:21 PM
• 6 min read
-- The indictment Friday of 13 Russians accused of waging "information warfare" in the 2016 U.S. presidential election is raising new questions about why the Trump administration still has not imposed sanctions designed to punish Russia and deter it from interfering in the 2018 midterms.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was asked on the CBS program "60 Minutes" why the administration has not done what Congress directed when it overwhelmingly passed legislation last summer calling for new sanctions.
“We have and we are,” he responded. “We've taken steps that have already prevented a number of Russian military sales as a result of the legislation, and we are evaluating additional individuals for possible sanctioning."
But while the administration argues that the threat of sanctions has met the intended effect of the law, there have been no new sanctions on Russia since its passage, leading Democrats to express outrage.
Trump begrudgingly signed the law in August, but warned it was unconstitutional in parts. Since then, there have been questions about whether he would fully enforce the law designed to tie his hands and force him to clamp down on Russia, especially because he's also repeatedly declined to even criticize Russia's actions.
In October, the administration missed a deadline by weeks to publish a list of Russian entities and individuals in the defense and intelligence sectors. Those groups are already under sanctions, but anyone doing business with them would face American sanctions starting January 29.
But when that day came, the State and Treasury departments did not impose any sanctions, instead saying the threat of sanctions had achieved the goal of disrupting and ending billions of dollars worth of such deals.
"Since the enactment of the CAATSA legislation, we estimate that foreign governments have abandoned planned or announced purchases of several billion dollars in Russian defense acquisitions," State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement at the time, using an acronym for the law - Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.
The administration has not published any evidence or details of the allegedly disrupted deals, citing private diplomatic conversations. Trump administration officials did, however, brief members of Congress about their efforts, which at least satisfied even Democrats initially.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., then the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “welcomed” the briefing and said he “appreciate[d] the administration’s engagement with Congress on this issue.” Cardin was one of the authors of the sanctions law, officially called the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA.
Since then, the pressure for more sanctions has escalated. Last Thursday, the White House released a statement blaming Russia for a massive cyber attack last year known as the “NotPetya” that overwhelmed Ukraine and hit some businesses, banks, and media organizations in other countries. The following day, special counsel Robert Mueller announced indictments against 13 Russian citizens, laying out in great detail Russia’s intricate plot to interfere and disrupt the U.S. presidential election.
Together, the two underscored the seriousness of the cyber threat from Russia, renewing calls for sanctions — and criticism of Trump for not taking seriously enough the danger, especially after his top administration officials like Tillerson and CIA director Mike Pompeo have warned Russia is looking to interfere again in the 2018 congressional elections.
“Since coming into office, President Trump has failed to address the ongoing threat to our security posed by Russia’s international assault on the democratic process,” Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., now the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement Friday.
“He continues to ignore congressional will with respect to the mandatory sanctions passed last year. It has been more than six months since [the sanctions bill] was signed into law, and not one, mandatory sanction has been imposed,” he added. “It’s inexcusable.”
But the administration has deflected, saying new sanctions could be coming. Tillerson’s comments echoed those of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who was grilled during congressional testimony last week.
“We are actively working on Russia’s sanctions,” he told the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday.
After Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, interrogated him about whether Trump has asked him to impose sanctions, Mnuchin said the president was supportive.
“I told him we would be doing sanctions against Russia, and he was pleased to hear that,” he said.
Among those potential new sanctions, the law ordered the administration to impose sanctions for Russians and those who aid Russia in cyberattacks — unless the White House can certify that “the Government of the Russian Federation has made significant efforts to reduce the number and intensity of cyber intrusions.”
Four top Democrats urged the imposition of these sanctions in a letter to Trump and Tillerson last month, but the administration has not yet taken any steps to implement those.