How the Trump administration’s secret efforts to ease Russia sanctions fell short

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent
President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Evan Vucci/AP, Alexander Zemlianichenko, pool/AP)

In the early weeks of the Trump administration, former Obama administration officials and State Department staffers fought an intense, behind-the-scenes battle to head off efforts by incoming officials to normalize relations with Russia, according to multiple sources familiar with the events.

Unknown to the public at the time, top Trump administration officials, almost as soon as they took office, tasked State Department staffers with developing proposals for the lifting of economic sanctions, the return of diplomatic compounds and other steps to relieve tensions with Moscow.

These efforts to relax or remove punitive measures imposed by President Obama in retaliation for Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and meddling in the 2016 election alarmed some State Department officials, who immediately began lobbying congressional leaders to quickly pass legislation to block the move, the sources said.

“There was serious consideration by the White House to unilaterally rescind the sanctions,” said Dan Fried, a veteran State Department official who served as chief U.S. coordinator for sanctions policy until he retired in late February. He said in the first few weeks of the administration, he received several “panicky” calls from U.S. government officials who told him they had been directed to develop a sanctions-lifting package and imploring him, “Please, my God, can’t you stop this?”

Fried said he grew so concerned that he contacted Capitol Hill allies — including Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., the ranking minority member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — to urge them to move quickly to pass legislation that would “codify” the sanctions in place, making it difficult for President Trump to remove them.

Tom Malinowski, who had just stepped down as President Obama’s assistant secretary of state for human rights, told Yahoo News he too joined the effort to lobby Congress after learning from former colleagues that the administration was developing a plan to lift sanctions — and possibly arrange a summit between Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin — as part of an effort to achieve a “grand bargain” with Moscow. “It would have been a win-win for Moscow,” said Malinowski, who only days before he left office announced his own round of sanctions against senior Russian officials for human rights abuses under a law known as the Magnitsky Act.

The previously unreported efforts by Fried and others to check the Trump administration’s policy moves cast new light on the unseen tensions over Russia policy during the early days of the new administration.

It also potentially takes on new significance for congressional and Justice Department investigators in light of reports that before the administration took office Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his chief foreign policy adviser, Michael Flynn, discussed setting up a private channel of communications with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak — talks that appear to have laid the groundwork for the proposals that began circulating right after the inauguration.

Jared Kushner, Russian Amb. Sergey Kislyak and former national security adviser Michael Flynn. (Photos: Evan Vucci/AP, Alexander Shcherbak/TASS via Getty Images, Carolyn Kaster/AP)

A senior White House official confirmed that the administration began exploring changes in Russia sanctions as part of a broader policy review that is still ongoing. “We’ve been reviewing all the sanctions — and this is not exclusive to Russia,” the official said. “All the sanctions regimes have mechanisms built in to alleviate them. It’s been our hope that the Russians would take advantage of that” by living up to Moscow’s agreement to end the Ukraine conflict, but they did not do so.

To be sure, President Trump’s interest in improving relations with Moscow was hardly a secret during last year’s presidential campaign. “If we can make a great deal for our country and get along with Russia, that would be a tremendous thing,” Trump said in a April 28, 2016, Fox News interview. “I would love to try it.”

But there was nothing said in public about specific steps the new administration took toward reaching the kind of deal the president had talked about during the campaign — without requiring the Russians to acknowledge responsibility for the annexation of Crimea or Moscow’s “influence campaign” during the 2016 election.

Just days after President Trump took office, officials who had moved into the secretary of state’s seventh-floor office sent a “tasking” order to the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs to develop a menu of options to improve relations with Russia as part of a deal in exchange for Russian cooperation in the war against the Islamic State in Syria, according to two former officials. Those options were to include sanctions relief as well as other steps that were a high priority for Moscow, including the return of two diplomatic compounds — one on Long Island and the other on Maryland’s Eastern Shore — that were shut by President Obama on Dec. 29 on the grounds that they were being used for espionage purposes. (The return of the compounds is again being actively considered by the administration, according to a Washington Post report Thursday.) “Obviously, the Russians have been agitating about this,” the senior White House official said when asked about the compounds, or “dachas,” as the Russians call them. But it would be inaccurate to report there has been an agreement to return them without some reciprocal move on Moscow’s part.

A vehicle with diplomatic license plates passes journalists after departing from a Russian compound in Upper Brookville, N.Y., Dec. 30, 2016. (Photo: Rashid Umar Abbasi/Reuters)

Since this was the same State Department bureau that had helped develop the punitive measures in the first place, and actively pushed for them under the leadership of Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland, who had just resigned, the tasking order left staffers feeling “deeply uncomfortable,” said one source, who asked not to be identified.

These concerns led some department officials to also reach out to Malinowski, an Obama political appointee who had just stepped down. Malinowski said he, like Fried, called Cardin and other congressional allies, including aides to Sen. John McCain, and urged them to codify the sanctions — effectively locking them in place — before Trump could lift them

The lobbying effort produced some immediate results: On Feb. 7, Cardin and Sen. Lindsay Graham introduced bipartisan legislation to bar the administration from granting sanctions relief without first submitting a proposal to do so for congressional review. “Russia has done nothing to be rewarded with sanctions relief,” Graham said in a statement at the time. If the U.S. were to lift sanctions without “verifiable progress” by Russia in living up to agreements in Ukraine, “we would lose all credibility in the eyes of our allies in Europe and around he world,” added Cardin in his own statement. (A spokesman for Cardin told Yahoo News in an emailed statement: “I can also confirm that the senator did hear from senior Obama officials encouraging him to take sanctions steps, but that he had already been considering it as well.”)

The proposed bill lost some of its urgency six days later when Flynn resigned as White House national security adviser following disclosures he had discussed political sanctions relief with Kislyak during the transition and misrepresented those talks to Vice President Mike Pence. After that, “it didn’t take too long for it to become clear that if they lifted sanctions, there would be a political firestorm,” Malinowski said.

But the political battles over the issue are far from over. Cardin, McCain and Graham are separately pushing another sanctions bill — imposing tough new measures in response to Russia’s election interference. The measures have so far been blocked for consideration within the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by its chairman, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who says he wants to first hear the administration’s position on the issue.

Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski at a press conference in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 2016. (Photo: Heng Sinith/AP)

In the meantime, Malinowksi said he is concerned that there may be other, less public ways the administration can undermine the Russian sanctions. He noted that much of their force results from parallel sanctions imposed by the European Union, whose members must unanimously renew them each year.

“I had this nightmare vision of [White House senior adviser ] Steve Bannon or [National Security Council staffer] Sebastian Gorka calling in the Hungarian ambassador and telling them President Trump would not be displeased” if his country opposed the renewal of sanctions, he said.

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