Trump Administration Looked to Unilaterally Lift Russia Sanctions

Is this why the people around the president were so desperate for a back channel with Moscow?

American president Donald Trump is seen in Washington DC, January 20
American president Donald Trump is seen in Washington DC, January 20 (DoD/Marianique Santos)

Is this it?

Last time we checked in with the Russia-Trump scandal, I wondered why the president’s team was so desperate for a back channel with Moscow.

A possible answer comes from Michael Isikoff, who reports for Yahoo News that one of the first things Donald Trump’s people did when they came to power in January was ask the State Department for proposals to normalize relations with Russia, including lifting economic sanctions and returning diplomatic compounds which had been seized by the Obama Administration in retaliation for Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.

Dan Fried, the State Department official who was in charge of sanctions policy at the time, told Isikoff there was serious consideration in the White House to unilaterally rescind the sanctions:

He said in the first few weeks of the administration, he received several “panicky” calls from American 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?”

The point of the sanctions, which bar Westerners from doing business with companies and individuals close to Vladimir Putin’s regime, is to deter further Russian aggression in Eastern Europe and, ideally, convince it to return the Crimean Peninsula to Ukraine.

They have accomplished the first, in combination with NATO boosting its military presence the region. The second goal looks unlikely to be realized any time soon.

Before retiring in February, Fried suggested to members of Congress they write the sanctions into law to make it impossible for Trump to overturn them.

Tom Malinowski, President Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of state for human rights, joined the lobbying effort, which was unsuccessful.

On the record

It is telling that Fried and Malinowski were willing to talk with Isikoff on the record. What we have learned about Trump’s Russia ties so far has mostly come from anonymous sources inside the government.

Fried and Malinowski are both recently retired, which makes it easier for them to speak out.

We have also heard blunt testimony from former CIA director John Brennan about Russia’s interference in the presidential election and the possibility of collusion with the Trump campaign.

We are likely to hear more from the recently fired FBI director, James Comey, when he testifies before Congress next week.

Not three, but four occasions

While we’re on the subject, I need to make a correction: When I wrote that Trump’s team attempted to bypass diplomatic channels in favor of their own diplomacy with Russia on at least three occasions, I forgot about the strange tale of Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer, who allegedly hand-delivered a proposal to end the war between Russia and Ukraine to General Michael Flynn, then Trump’s national security advisor, in February.

Cohen first confirmed and then “emphatically” denied the story.

Talking Points Memo has put together a helpful list of all of Cohen’s ties to the former Soviet Union.