United States senators sent Russia a message Wednesday with a nearly unanimous, bipartisan vote on a set of sanctions as part of the larger Countering Iran's Destabilizing Activities Act, but they also were likely sending President Donald Trump a little memo as well.
The amendment — which passed 97-2 — creates new sanctions in several categories, including those "conducting malicious cyber activity on behalf of the Russian government," people doing business with Russian intelligence and defense agencies, and those "supplying weapons to the Assad regime" in Syria or engaged in corruption or human rights abuses. It also creates a congressional review process if the executive branch eases current sanctions.
The larger bill is expected to pass the Senate by the end of the week, then be passed by the House and signed by Trump.
U.S. intelligence sources have concluded Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but they — despite encouragement by the national media and Democrats — have not tied the president to such attempts. But senators evidently wanted to warn the president of getting too close to the country, with which he did business as a private citizen, or of loosening any previous sanctions on the country.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson worried about a potential amendment closing off channels to the country, but Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, said the amendment's final language precluded that.
"I think the bill is a very, very strong signal to Russia," he said, having played a role in drafting its wording, "but it does provide the administration the flexibilities they need to conduct business. I think we struck a very good balance." He also said the bill sets an example of how the Senate can work together on complex, difficult issues.
While Corker was measured, other Republican and Democrat senators said Russia needed to understand the U.S. position on its election interference.
Although the interference was a "brazen attack on our democracy," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said, Russians to date have paid no price for it.
The amendment, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said, offers the sanctions "the Kremlin deserves for its actions."
The Senate had been pondering what separate measures against Russia might look like, but Corker and ranking Democrat Ben Cardin of Maryland suggested the Iran bill might be a better and faster route for them.
The initial Iran bill imposes sanctions on any foreign person or foreign entity that does business with an entity already designated by the administration that has a connection to Iran's ballistic missile program. The sanctions, for example, could apply to any financial institution or any foreign company that provides key parts or components to Iran's missile program.
Officials have been divided on how carefully the Middle East country has adhered to the executive agreement nuclear deal then-President Barack Obama agreed to in 2015.
We hope this bill, once passed, sends a strong warning to Iran and Russia that the U.S. Congress is keeping a wary eye on the two countries and that the legislative branch expects nothing less from President Trump.