White House: ‘Legal review’ holding up Russian sanctions

WASHINGTON — Days after declaring that President Trump would sign legislation imposing tough new sanctions on Russia, the White House said Tuesday that his government lawyers needed to wrap up a “legal review” of the bill first.

Congress approved the bill, which also imposes punitive economic measures on Iran and North Korea, on Friday, sending it to Trump by a veto-proof margin. Later that day, incoming White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a written statement saying the president “has now reviewed the final version and, based on its responsiveness to his negotiations, approves the bill and intends to sign it.” The statement made no mention of a pending review.

Asked on Monday why Trump had yet to sign the measure, Sanders told reporters at her daily briefing: “There’s nothing holding him back. There’s a review process, a legal process. They’re going through that. And he’ll sign the bill and we’ll let you guys know.”

Sanders added: “As with every very particularly complex piece of legislation — like this is — there’s a legal review.”

Her comments fueled speculation that Trump, who has repeatedly declared his eagerness for better relations with Moscow, could be considering a presidential “signing statement” aimed at watering down the impact of the law. Presidents have regularly used such statements, particularly upon signing measures touching on foreign policy, to reaffirm that they, not Congress, run foreign policy. Doing so in this instance would defy vast bipartisan majorities in both chambers, risking a political backlash.

President Trump shakes hands with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin during their bilateral meeting at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, in July 2017. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

The sanctions are designed to punish Moscow for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, as well as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its support for Syrian strongman Bashar Assad. *Trump has sharply questioned his intelligence agencies’ assessment that Russia sought to influence the election.*

The legislation is notable in part for the way it restricts the president’s ability to waive key provisions unless Congress signs off. The unusual limits reflected lawmakers’ concerns that Trump aims to ease sanctions using his executive authority. The White House had argued that it needed greater diplomatic flexibility, joining up with oil and gas companies and defense contractors looking to water down some provisions.

The bill has drawn an angry response from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who over the weekend ordered U.S. diplomatic missions in his country to reduce their staffs by 755 employees overall. The majority will be local Russians, not American diplomats, but the cuts will likely badly hamper some consular services.

Trump has found time in the two days since Putin’s decision to rail on Twitter about the news media and denounce Obamacare but has not said anything about Moscow’s retaliation. During the campaign, Trump routinely heaped praise on Putin.

But Vice President Mike Pence, stopping in the ex-Soviet nation of Georgia, said Trump would sign the sanctions measure “very soon” and that Putin’s response would have no effect.

“We hope for better days, and we hope for better relations with Russia, but the recent diplomatic action taken by Moscow, I can assure, will not deter the commitment of the United States to our security, to that of our allies, and to freedom-loving nations around the world like Georgia,” Pence said.

“As always, our country prefers a constructive relationship with Russia based on cooperation and common interests,” the vice president said. “But the president and our Congress are unified in our message to Russia:  A better relationship, the lifting of sanctions, will require Russia to reverse the actions that caused sanctions to be imposed in the first place.”

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