With its 98-2 vote to expand sanctions against Russia, the U.S. Senate has effectively served notice on two great powers in Washington: Russia, which may have to face new costs for its meddling in the 2016 U.S. election; and President Donald Trump, who will have to contend with congressional input on U.S. policy toward Russia.
The bill, which also strengthens penalties against Iran, would put into law sanctions that had been imposed by former President Barack Obama and not allow Trump to ease or lift them without congressional review. It also would allow new sanctions on state-owned entities in Russia, such as those which engage in “malicious cyber activity” or supply weapons to Syria.
At a separate hearing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signaled the administration’s unhappiness with the impending Senate vote, which he argued would reduce its “flexibility” in reaching out to Russia. But Trump has only himself to blame. Ignoring Russia’s aggressive conduct in Syria, Europe, and Afghanistan — not to mention inside U.S. computer servers — he has pushed for lifting sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Crimea, cyberattacks and human-rights violations. He and members of his administration have dissembled about their contacts with Russia during the campaign and dismissed the steadily expanding investigations into them.
In an alternate universe — one in which someone other than Trump were president — pursuing better relations with Russia might make sense. Sanctions are best used sparingly, in concert with other nations and with a clear goal in mind. And while Congress certainly has a constitutional role to play in foreign relations, the ship of state sails most smoothly with one captain, not 535.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin is showing no signs of contrition or reform — and neither, for that matter, is Trump. From the Americas and Europe to the Middle East and Asia, his outbursts and their dissonance with both longstanding U.S. policies and his own cabinet’s pronouncements are worrying allies and creating openings for adversaries. Under these circumstances, the Senate was right to step in.
There is a larger issue at stake as well, beyond Russia or Trump’s relationship with Russia: Congress needs to reassert its prerogatives in foreign policy. In budget hearings, there were hopeful signs. Senators made clear that the administration’s plans to downgrade the promotion of democracy and the provision of humanitarian aid — both areas of longstanding U.S. leadership — will face resistance. Congress can also reclaim its constitutional power to declare war by approving a clear authorization for the use of military force against Islamic State.
The lopsided vote in favor of the Senate bill suggests that a basis for a bipartisan policy on Russia still exists. In this polarized age, that’s something on which the president should build.