Republicans break ranks over US sanctions on Russian oligarch

The vote was a symbolic crack in the Republican Party, and came despite a last-ditch plea by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
The vote was a symbolic crack in the Republican Party, and came despite a last-ditch plea by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - A group of 11 Republican senators broke ranks with their leadership and the administration on Tuesday (Jan 15) to side with Democrats in a showdown over sanctions on Russia, underscoring the political sensitivity of the issue amid questions about President Donald Trump's relationship with Moscow.

The Republicans voted with Democrats seeking to keep sanctions in place on companies controlled by an influential Russian oligarch with connections to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The 11 Republican votes allowed Senate Democrats to advance a measure that would reverse a decision last month by the Treasury Department to lift sanctions that it imposed last year on companies controlled by the oligarch, Mr Oleg V. Deripaska, including the aluminium giant Rusal.

The Treasury Department's decision would leave in place personal sanctions on Mr Deripaska and require him to give up control over Rusal and two linked companies, EN+ and JSC EuroSibEnergo.

The measure still needs to clear several more hurdles, and proponents need to attract at least two more Republican votes to win final passage in the Senate.

But Tuesday's vote was a symbolic crack in the Republican Party, and came despite opposition from the majority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and a last-ditch plea by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

The vote in some ways forced Republicans to choose between the party's traditional foreign policy, which has long supported a tougher line on Russia, and Trump, whose warmer stance toward Russia has inflamed questions about Moscow's efforts in 2016 to help elect him.

 
 
 

The sanctions were announced by the Treasury Department last April on Mr Deripaska, his companies and those of other Russian oligarchs in retaliation for the Russian meddling in the presidential election.

The announcement was touted as evidence that the administration was taking a tough stance against Moscow despite Mr Trump's equivocation on Russian interference and his warm words for Mr Putin.

But the Treasury Department repeatedly delayed the full implementation of the sanctions against the three Deripaska companies amid an aggressive lobbying and legal campaign in Washington by the companies and their allies.

They argued that the sanctions could have unintended negative effects on companies in the United States, Europe, Jamaica, Guinea and elsewhere by disrupting the supply of aluminium.

The Treasury Department echoed those concerns in announcing last month that it would lift the sanctions against the three Deripaska companies as part of an agreement that it said would reduce Mr Deripaska's ownership and control of the companies.

The move prompted howls of protest from Democrats and some Russia hawks, who accused the administration of going soft on Russia in the midst of the special counsel's investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia's election meddling.

Mr Deripaska has emerged as a bit character in the storylines around the investigation as a result of his payments to Paul Manafort, Mr Trump's former campaign chairman, who has been convicted and pleaded guilty to charges brought by the special counsel Robert Mueller.

Democrats urged the Treasury Department to postpone the final decision on sanctions relief for Mr Deripaska's companies until after Mr Mueller's investigation concludes.

Mr Mnuchin visited Republican senators on Tuesday before the vote to implore them to support the sanctions relief.

The appearance followed a briefing to the House last week in which he argued that the deal his agency negotiated with Deripaska's companies would punish the oligarch by separating him from the companies, without having economic ripple effects. The briefing left Democratic leaders unconvinced.

And Tuesday's Senate vote indicated that Mr Mnuchin's assurances did not assuage doubts among the party's Russia sceptics that the deal with Mr Deripaska's companies sufficiently decreased his control.

"I don't like the way it's structured," said Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who voted with Democrats and has been among the party's leading critics of Russia.

The measure passed 57-42, with Democrat Senator Kirsten Gillibrand missing the vote as she announced her first step to start a campaign for the party's 2020 presidential nomination. The measure will face another Senate vote - this one requiring 60 votes - as soon as Wednesday.

Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, who introduced the resolution, foreshadowed the way his party intended to frame the fight if it does not get its way.

"We're only a few Republican votes short of the US Senate telling Putin he can't run the show no matter what President Trump and his administration try to do," Mr Schumer said. "If Republican senators agree with Leader McConnell, who said that Putin is a 'thug' - they'll vote yes tomorrow."

In addition to Mr Rubio, the other Republican senators who voted with Democrats were John Boozman of Arkansas, Susan Collins of Maine, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Steve Daines of Montana, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Josh Hawley of Missouri, John Kennedy of Louisiana, Martha McSally of Arizona, Jerry Moran of Kansas and Ben Sasse of Nebraska.