Will Racke on June 2, 2017
Former Obama administration officials waged a secret campaign against President Donald Trump’s efforts to normalize relations with Russia in the early weeks of his presidency, blocking White House attempts to unilaterally lift sanctions and other measures designed to relieve tensions with Moscow.
The high-ranking Department of State officials lobbied Congressional allies to counter the Trump administration’s plans for reversing course on existing Russian policy, according to a report from Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News. The campaign began after top administration officials ordered State Department staffers to explore options for the lifting of economic sanctions, the return of diplomatic compounds and other negotiating chips that could be used in a “grand bargain” with Russia.
Those orders alarmed some leaders at State who supported the sanctions, which were imposed in retaliation for Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and for Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign. They immediately launched a behind-the-scenes fight, asking certain members of Congress to sponsor legislation that would prevent the easing of sanctions, reports Yahoo News.
“There was serious consideration by the White House to unilaterally rescind the sanctions,” said Dan Fried, a former career State Department official who was the primary U.S. coordinator for sanctions policy. Fried, who retired from government service in February, told Yahoo News that he received panicked phone calls from State Department staffers concerned about the White House position. Fried then reached out to allies on Capitol Hill, including Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, for help.
He was soon joined by Tom Malinowski, who had just stepped down as Obama’s Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights. Malinowski told Yahoo News that he joined the lobbying effort after hearing from former State Department colleagues that the administration was developing a plan to lift the sanctions.
“It would have been a win-win for Moscow,” he said.
The revelation of a secret campaign to stall Trump’s outreach to Russia is the latest twist in an ongoing drama that has consumed the administration since its first day in office. In addition to accusations that the White House is seeking to mollify Russia at the expense of Western allies, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and multiple Congressional committees are investigating possible collusion between Trump campaign aides and Russian operatives. The DOJ probe has recently focused on Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner for allegedly asking the Russians to set up an unofficial communications channel with Moscow during the presidential transition period. (RELATED: Ex-CIA Chief Mike Morell Has Little Confidence In Sources Behind Kushner-Russia Story)
Those subplots feed a larger narrative that the Trump administration is willing to excuse Russian provocations in order to repair the frayed relationship between Washington and Moscow. As the secret lobbying campaign makes clear, the Trump administration was eager to chart a new course on Russia policy, and both career officers and political appointees within the foreign affairs bureaucracy were just as determined to prevent that from happening.
The effort produced bipartisan action in Congress, reports Yahoo News. Cardin and Sen. Lindsay Graham introduced legislation in February that would have prevented sanctions relief for Russia without prior approval from lawmakers.
“Russia has done nothing to be rewarded with sanctions relief,” Graham said in a statement at the time. Lifting sanctions would cause the U.S. to “lose all credibility in the eyes of our allies in Europe and around he world,” Cardin added in a separate statement. Although lawmakers never voted on the measure, it did send a message to the administration, Malinowski claims.
“It didn’t take too long for it to become clear that if they lifted sanctions, there would be a political firestorm,” Malinowski told Yahoo News.
The Trump administration has said that it will maintain sanctions on Russia in the near future as it continues to engage Moscow on other issues such as ending the war in Syria and counterterrorism operations. White House officials are reportedly considering returning diplomatic compounds in Maryland and New York, although an advisor to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday that no deal on the estates has been reached.
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