Trump Faces Growing GOP Pressure to Maintain Russia Sanctions

  • Pushback comes amid reports Trump is mulling lifting penalties
  • Ohio Republican Rob Portman says U.S. must stand by Ukraine

Trump: We’ll See What Happens With Russia Sanctions

A group of Republicans in the U.S. Senate is intensifying calls on President Donald Trump to keep sanctions on Russia in place ahead of his planned call with Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin.

Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio and others were responding to media reports that Trump administration officials are considering taking executive actions to lift sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 over its occupation of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine.

“I am deeply concerned about reports suggesting that sanctions imposed on Russia may be lifted without resolving the unacceptable and hostile actions that caused the sanctions to be imposed by the U.S. and our allies," Portman, who during the campaign rescinded his endorsement of Trump after the "Access Hollywood" video leaked, said Friday in a statement. "I would encourage the president to reject this course of action."

Portman is one of five Republican senators, including Armed Services Chairman John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, to co-sponsor a Democratic-authored bill aimed at locking into law the sanctions imposed by President Barack Obama. The legislation would also target anyone suspected of hacking into U.S. computer systems, a reaction to U.S. intelligence findings that Russia meddled in the U.S. election by breaking into e-mail accounts associated with Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

McCain also implored Trump on Friday to abandon any efforts to ease or lift sanctions.

“For the sake of America’s national security and that of our allies, I hope President Trump will put an end to this speculation and reject such a reckless course,” he said. “If he does not, I will work with my colleagues to codify sanctions against Russia into law.”

‘Very Early’

Trump is scheduled to confer with Putin by phone on Saturday. During a joint news conference that Trump held Friday with British Prime Minister Theresa May, he said it remains “very early to talk about” lifting the sanctions. Earlier in the day, a senior Trump aide, Kellyanne Conway, said on Fox News that such a move is “under consideration.”

Trump will hold a series of calls with world leaders Saturday aside from Putin, including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

May told reporters the sanctions should continue until Putin complied with a cease-fire agreed to in Minsk in 2014. Obama and European Union leaders imposed financial penalties targeting banking, energy and defense sectors after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The penalties primarily hit Russian companies with close ties to the Kremlin, but American businesses also felt the impact. Exxon Mobil Corp. announced in 2014 that it was suspending its $700 million drilling exploration in Russia’s Kara Sea in the aftermath of the sanctions. The energy giant’s chief executive at the time, Rex Tillerson, is Trump’s nominee to lead the U.S. State Department.

The Senate is scheduled to take a procedural vote on Tillerson’s nomination Monday evening, with a formal confirmation vote expected no later than Wednesday. Several Republicans, including Marco Rubio of Florida, had expressed reservations that Tillerson may be sympathetic to Russia, but they ultimately backed his nomination and he is expected to win confirmation.

The new Russia sanctions bill, S. 94, which is backed by Portman, McCain, Graham, Rubio and Ben Sasse of Nebraska, was introduced by Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. All five Republicans kept their distance from Trump during the campaign.

McConnell’s Stance

It’s unclear whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would take up the measure. It would also have to be passed by the House and could face a veto from Trump.

House Speaker Paul Ryan backed the existing sanctions regime on Friday.

“I think Obama was late in putting them in place,” he said at an event hosted by Politico. “I think they should stay.”

Earlier this month, McConnell said that it’s not unusual for new administrations to try to “get along with” Russia.

“My suspicion is these hopes will be dashed pretty quickly," he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Jan. 8. “The Russians are clearly a big adversary. And they demonstrated it by trying to mess around in our election.”

Obama imposed additional sanctions late last year in retaliation over the hacking of Democratic Party officials’ e-mail accounts.

Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on Russia’s involvement, but McCain called Russia’s actions during the election "the most flagrant demonstration of Putin’s disdain and disrespect for our nation."

The Trump call with Putin will take place after a raucous week that saw Trump engage in fights over the size of the crowd at his Jan. 20 inauguration and flirt with launching a trade war with Mexico.

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