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WASHINGTON — President Trump on Wednesday grudgingly signed legislation toughening sanctions on Russia over its interference in the 2016 election, but ripped into the law and mocked its authors in Congress as he vowed to pursue better relations with Moscow.
The “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act,” which also imposes punitive measures against Iran and North Korea, had sailed through the House and Senate by near-unanimous, veto-proof margins. At the same time, the legislation had drawn angry criticisms from European allies, notably over concerns it would cripple ongoing energy projects, and from Russia.
In a pair of statements, Trump condemned the law as a “significantly flawed” policy that risks damaging U.S. foreign policy and contains “clearly unconstitutional provisions” that improperly encroach on his presidential powers. He also signaled he might not enforce it as vigorously as its authors intended.
“Yet despite its problems, I am signing this bill for the sake of national unity,” the president said. “It represents the will of the American people to see Russia take steps to improve relations with the United States. We hope there will be cooperation between our two countries on major global issues so that these sanctions will no longer be necessary.”
Trump, who has publicly doubted the U.S. intelligence community finding that Moscow meddled in the 2016 election, also said he supported “making clear that America will not tolerate interference in our democratic process, and that we will side with our allies and friends against Russian subversion and destabilization.”
The remarks highlighted a slow but steady shift in the Trump administration’s public position on U.S. relations with Russia since taking office six months ago. At the outset, Trump seemed to chiefly consider making concessions to Moscow — like easing sanctions — in order to secure closer cooperation on issues like the war against the so-called Islamic State. But recently, top aides including Vice President Mike Pence have said it’s up to Russia to take steps to improve ties.
The two statements from the White House had broadly similar messages couched in very different styles. The first, a traditional “signing statement,” made essentially a legal argument against individual provisions of the bill and a constitutional argument that the president would enforce it in line with the prerogatives of his office. The second was a blend of political and legal arguments spiced up with jibes at Congress, including a recent Republican failure to advance legislation repealing Obamacare.
“Congress could not even negotiate a healthcare bill after seven years of talking,” Trump said. “I built a truly great company worth many billions of dollars. That is a big part of the reason I was elected. As president, I can make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress.”
The legislation codifies sanctions then-President Barack Obama imposed after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, as well as its alleged interference in the 2016 election. The law 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 might try 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.
“My administration particularly expects the Congress to refrain from using this flawed bill to hinder our important work with European allies to resolve the conflict in Ukraine, and from using it to hinder our efforts to address any unintended consequences it may have for American businesses, our friends, or our allies,” Trump said.
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.
Later in the day Wednesday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev wrote on Twitter that the bill signing “ends hopes for improving our relations.” Medvedev also said that the bill would have “few consequences” and that it humiliated Trump.
Last updated 4:50 p.m. ET
(Cover tile photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
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