On the heels of news that the Trump administration is looking into ways to return the compounds confiscated by the Obama administration to punish Russia for interfering in our elections, a new bombshell has dropped, this time from Michael Isikoff of Yahoo! News.
According to the report, top Trump administration officials 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.
This horrified staffers, who then reached out to Congress to try and get them to take legislative action and make it more difficult for the administration to unilaterally revoke the sanctions.
“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?”
Ultimately, their pleas reached Senator Ben Cardin, who is the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations committee. At the same time, former Obama administration officials were also reaching out and pressuring Congress.
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.
For the administration's part, they're sanguine about the whole thing. An unnamed official told Isikoff, “We’ve been reviewing all the sanctions — and this is not exclusive to Russia.”
“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, the official said.
Nothing to see here, move along? Not so fast. This was, apparently, a top priority for the administration. The landing teams which took over at State after Trump's Inauguration "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."
Apparently Trump was so desperate to get the upper hand on ISIL that he was willing to offer sweeping sanctions relief, 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.
At that point, pressure was put on Congress to codify the sanctions to keep Trump from destroying them, and that effort was full speed ahead until...
...Michael Flynn resigned.
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.
The plot thickens.