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In Diplomatic Disconnect, Trump Talks Nice With Putin, As Congress Talks Tough

U.S. President Donald Trump (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki on July 16.

WASHINGTON -- The way the U.S. president sees it, Washington and Moscow have a brighter future ahead. For members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, now is the time to double down on punishing Russia.

U.S. President Donald Trump's conciliatory approach during his July 16 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin was widely criticized in Washington. It was seen as a missed opportunity to take Russia to task for election meddling, its seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, and other thorns in the U.S.-Russia relationship.

Since the summit, which came amid a deepening probe into the Kremlin's efforts to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential vote, Democrats and Republicans alike have pushed forward with tough new measures against Russia.

"Just as Vladimir Putin has made clear his intention to challenge American power, influence, and security interests at home and abroad, the United States must make it abundantly clear that we will defend our nation and not waver in our rejection of his effort to erode Western democracy as a strategic imperative for Russia’s future," said Republican Lindsay Graham and Democrat Robert Menendez in a joint statement on July 24.

This week, the two -- Graham sits on the Senate Armed Service Committee, Menendez on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- announced that new legislation would "enhance sanctions pressure on Russia while bolstering the capacity of the United States government to respond."

U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham: "We will defend our nation..."
U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham: "We will defend our nation..."

Among other things, the bill would increase sanctions against Russian energy and financial companies, wealthy Kremlin-connected businessmen, and so-called parastatal entities -- private companies that are believed to work closely with Russian government and intelligence agencies.

It would also mandate Senate approval if the Trump administration sought to withdraw from NATO -- a concern ahead of the Trump-Putin summit -- and call for sanctions on Russian sovereign debt, something that some analysts have said would be a dramatic escalation of financial pressure.

Like the Menendez-Graham proposal, a related measure tying the 2012 Magnitsky Act to the sweeping law that Congress passed last year -- known as Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions, or CAATSA -- has also garnered bipartisan support. It’s a further indication of a wide consensus in the Senate when it comes to Russia policy.

That measure, backed by Republican John McCain and Democrat Ben Cardin, would require congressional approval for the lifting of any sanctions targeting Russians under the Magnitsky Act -- a bipartisan effort to punish Russian officials believed to be responsible for the 2009 death in prison of Russian tax accountant Sergei Magnitsky.

The CAATSA law -- which imposes a slate of penalties against Russia and was passed over Trump’s objections -- allows for congressional review and possible disapproval of any actions by the president to lift U.S. sanctions on Russia.

U.S. Senator John McCain: "The Magnitsky Act remains the best mechanism to hold the Russian government accountable..."
U.S. Senator John McCain: "The Magnitsky Act remains the best mechanism to hold the Russian government accountable..."

"The Magnitsky Act remains the best mechanism to hold the Russian government accountable for its gross human rights abuses and provide justice to the Russian people," McCain, who co-authored the act with Cardin, said in a statement. "Putin knows this and has been fighting against it for years."

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, meanwhile, has called for new hearings on U.S. relations with NATO, Russian policies in Syria, and arms-control disputes with Moscow.

On July 25, it also summoned Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to testify, where he was grilled about what Trump discussed with Putin behind closed doors in Helsinki.

Pompeo defended the U.S. president's approach toward Russia, including the question of whether Trump accepted the findings of the U.S. intelligence community that said Putin ordered a cyber-and-propaganda campaign aimed at swaying U.S. voters during the 2016 election. Trump has questioned those findings in the past.

"He has a complete and proper understanding of what happened," Pompeo said. "I would also add that President Trump is well aware of the challenges that Russia poses to the United States and our partners and allies. And he has taken a staggering number of actions to protect our interests."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 25: "President Trump is well aware of the challenges that Russia poses to the United States."
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 25: "President Trump is well aware of the challenges that Russia poses to the United States."

Pompeo also unveiled a formal "nonrecognition" policy toward Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, cementing a policy that Trump has publicly questioned.

Menendez questioned why Trump’s meeting with Putin included only interpreters, not advisers, and asked why there was no detailed public explanation from the White House about what was discussed.

"I really don't believe, Mr. Secretary, that you know what happened during the president's two-plus hours of conversation with President Putin and I really don't know much more about the summit after sitting here for three hours than I did before," Menendez told Pompeo.

Senator Bob Menendez: "I really don't believe, Mr. Secretary, that you know what happened."
Senator Bob Menendez: "I really don't believe, Mr. Secretary, that you know what happened."

In another bipartisan effort, Senator Marco Rubio, a vocal Russia critic and Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has pushed for a vote on legislation known as DETER. The bill, co-sponsored by Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen, is aimed at imposing new sanctions on Russia if U.S. intelligence uncovers meddling in the upcoming midterm congressional elections -- something some U.S. officials have warned about.

"If our bill passes and the director of national intelligence says they interfered in 2018, these very tough sanctions will hit them," Rubio told CNN on July 22. "So Putin knows going in what the price of doing so is."

Though CAATSA passed overwhelmingly in Congress, some lawmakers, particularly Democrats, have accused the Trump administration of dragging its feet in imposing financial restrictions.

This week, Mike Crapo, the Republican chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, said he would hold hearings to review how the law has been implemented and "what other tools can be used" to deter Russia, according to a joint statement released along with the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker.

Also this week, House and Senate negotiators moved to finalize a defense bill for next year that includes guidance on spending for new weapons programs and military policy.

Many of the provisions are pointedly aimed at Russia, including funding for a low-yield ballistic-missile warhead aimed at deterring Russia, and more than $200 million in lethal weaponry for Ukraine.

It also earmarks some $6 billion for the European Deterrence Initiative, which has deployed U.S. Army troops and heavy weaponry in Eastern Europe.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on July 24 pushed back on assertions by Russia that Trump and Putin had agreed to cooperate in helping refugees return to Syria, where the United States and Russia are waging a parallel, but overlapping, military campaign.

"We will not be doing anything additional until the secretary of state and the president have further figured out at what point we are going to start working, alongside our allies, with Russia in the future," he told a news conference in California.

Other statements from Trump administration officials have conflicted with White House remarks, such as Trump’s comments in Helsinki in which he appeared to dispute the U.S. intelligence community's conclusions about Russian election interference.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats publicly defended the intelligence conclusions and suggested it had been unwise for Trump to meet one-on-one with Putin.

"If he had asked me how that ought to be conducted, I would have suggested a different way. But that’s not my role; that’s not my job," Coats said on July 19 during a conference in Colorado.

In Moscow, Russian officials have openly complained about the persistent tensions, even as they reject U.S. intelligence conclusions about the 2016 meddling.

The indictment of the 12 Russian military intelligence officers in the preelection hacking of the Democratic National Committee, announced just three days before the Helsinki summit, amounted to an effort by the "American Deep State" to try and spoil the meeting, according to the Foreign Ministry.

"There is no doubt about the Russian side's ability and readiness to fulfill the results of this summit, but there is doubt regarding the American side, and it is not connected to things President Trump personally wants to achieve or avoid," said Konstantin Kosachyov, a Kremlin-connected lawmaker who heads the Foreign Relations Committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament.

"It is connected to his ability to fulfill these agreements, which, to my mind, is artificially restricted by Congress and some U.S. agencies, including intelligence services," he was quoted by Russian news agencies on July 24 as saying.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.