Political News

Bipartisan Senate Group Pushes ‘Crushing’ Punishments to Thwart Russia

Posted August 2, 2018 4:35 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — For much of the past year, as President Donald Trump has belittled NATO, sought warmer relations with the Kremlin and questioned his own intelligence services about Russia’s election interference campaign, Congress’ response has been little more than rhetorical.

A bipartisan group of influential senators is proposing to change that.

Led by two Republicans, Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Cory Gardner of Colorado, the group introduced legislation late on Wednesday to impose “crushing” new punishments on President Vladimir Putin of Russia and his associates. The bill would also cut off Trump’s ability to remove the United States from NATO without the support of the Senate and write into law new international deterrence programs meant to serve as a governmentwide response to Russian aggression.

The legislation, which counts Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and three prominent Democrats among its supporters, is one of the biggest efforts to date by Congress to wrestle back some authority to shape foreign policy. Its authors said senators from both parties were already asking to sponsor the measure.

Whether it could actually become law is another question. Republican leaders on Capitol Hill have been averse to intervening too aggressively in Trump’s decisions. The House’s monthlong recess, a booked legislative agenda for the fall and the impending midterm elections will certainly not help.

And there are other sanctions already under consideration. The most frequently discussed — a measure written by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. — would in essence put Russia on notice, threatening it with broad-based economic sanctions if it carried out an attack on November’s midterms.

On Thursday, top national security officials made a rare appearance at a White House briefing where they described an active campaign by Russia to influence and disrupt the midterm elections. The officials, including the director of national intelligence and the heads of the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, said Russia tried to meddle in the last election and that it was working to undermine this fall’s vote as well.

“We acknowledge the threat. It is real. It is continuing,” said Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence. “We are doing everything we can to have a legitimate election that everyone can have trust in.”

Graham and his co-sponsors argue that Russia has already crossed a dangerous threshold. One need look no further than reports in recent days that at least one Democratic senator up for re-election was targeted by Russian hackers last year and that Facebook has identified a sophisticated new influence operation on its networks reminiscent of the one carried out by Russians in 2016.

“The current sanctions regime has failed to deter Russia from meddling in the upcoming 2018 midterm elections,” said Graham, one of the Senate’s leading Russia critics. “Our goal is to change the status quo and impose crushing sanctions and other measures against Putin’s Russia until he ceases and desists meddling in the U.S. electoral process, halts cyberattacks on U.S. infrastructure, removes Russia from Ukraine and ceases efforts to create chaos in Syria.”

The Republican-led Congress passed a package of withering sanctions targeting Russia a year ago, in part to punish its 2016 efforts. But a debate over how to amp up pressure has blossomed anew in recent weeks, as lawmakers have grappled with new disclosures about continued Russian activity and Trump’s widely panned meeting with Putin in Helsinki last month.

Trump spent the days leading up to the meeting bashing NATO, the American-led alliance committed to counteracting Russia’s influence. Once there, he appeared to accept Putin’s denials that Russia did not interfere in 2016 and cast doubt on U.S. intelligence agencies’ findings on the matter.

Many Republicans, long uncomfortable with the president’s forgiving stance toward Russia, condemned Trump’s performance but have been unwilling or unable to take direct action. The possibility of additional sanctions appears to be an exception.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the typically reserved majority leader, called out Rubio’s bill by name last month and asked the Senate Banking and Foreign Relations Committees to hold hearings on Russia and the imposing of sanctions already on the books. Those hearings have yet to be scheduled, and Democrats say McConnell has no intention of actually pushing through legislation.

Still, the senators’ argument for tough immediate action received an added boost this week, when Facebook disclosed that it had detected and tried to disrupt a sophisticated influence campaign on its networks sowing discord ahead of November’s elections. Though the company said it was unable to definitively attribute the activity to Russia, the tactics bore a striking resemblance to those used around the 2016 election. And some of the accounts interacted with accounts known to be operated by the Internet Research Agency, the Kremlin-linked group that was at the center of an indictment related to earlier interference.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., also confirmed a Daily Beast report that her office was unsuccessfully targeted by Russian hackers last year. American intelligence officials have indicated that she is not alone, but no other office or candidate has been publicly identified.

The package is designed to mount pressure on Russia to stop such activity. It includes a long list of provisions designed to embarrass Putin, cripple his allies financially and create new criminal vulnerabilities for Russia and other nations participating in cyberattacks. It would mandate that the United States assemble a report on Putin’s finances and assets — a move long advocated by Russia hawks who believe it would expose the extent of any financial crimes committed by Putin. And it penalizes projects involving Russian sovereign debt and state-owned energy companies — a move that some Republicans, including in the Trump administration, fear could wreak havoc across global markets.

The package also includes a provision, written by Gardner, that would require the State Department to determine whether Russia should be designated a state sponsor of terrorism. Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, an author of the bill and the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said it would fill a void left by Trump for a clear, governmentwide response to Putin’s efforts.

“Putin’s aggressing will be met with consequences that will shake the regime to its foundation,” Menendez said in an interview. “And that is the only thing Putin understands.”