President Donald Trump’s first conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin since taking office is causing concern among European allies and consternation among fellow Republicans about the future of U.S. penalties imposed on Moscow.
Trump was noncommittal before Saturday’s scheduled telephone call about whether he was considering lifting the economic sanctions. “We’ll see what happens. As far as the sanctions, very early to be talking about that,” he told reporters.
Trump made those remarks Friday alongside British Prime Minister Theresa May, whose country — as part of the European Union — also has punished Russia for its provocations in Ukraine. Voicing the view of many in Europe, May said, “We believe the sanctions should continue.”
Vice President Mike Pence was expected to join the call, but not others that Trump planned Saturday with the leaders of Japan, Germany, France and Australia.
Two Republican senators — Arizona’s John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Ohio’s Rob Portman, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee — also warned the White House about easing any punishments on Moscow and they pledged to turn the sanctions into law.
“I hope President Trump will put an end to this speculation and reject such a reckless course,” McCain said in a statement. “If he does not, I will work with my colleagues to codify sanctions against Russia into law.”
Portman said lifting the sanctions “for any reason other than a change in the behavior that led to those sanctions in the first place would send a dangerous message to a world already questioning the value of American leadership and the credibility of our commitments after eight years of Obama administration policies.”
Russia’s security chief, Nikolai Patrushev, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying he had high hopes for the call. “Everything will be positive,” Patrushev said.
During his talks with the leader of Japan,Trump invited Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to meet in Washington on Feb. 10, the White House said. Trump also affirmed the “ironclad U.S. commitment” to the security of Japan, an ally, and the leaders pledged to consult and cooperate on the threat posed by a nuclear-ambitious North Korea, the White House said.
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U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that Moscow meddled in the 2016 election to help Trump become president.
Obama in late December ordered sanctions on Russian spy agencies, closed two Russian compounds and expelled 35 diplomats that the United States said were really spies. The new penalties add to existing U.S. sanctions over Russia’s actions in Ukraine, which have damaged Russia’s economy but only limited impact on Putin’s behavior.
In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea in Ukraine, drawing widespread condemnation in Europe and the United States and a raft of penalties.
McCain has emerged as a frequent critic of Trump among Capitol Hill Republicans. He takes a dim view of trying to reset relations with Moscow and says Trump should remember that Putin is “a murderer and a thug who seeks to undermine American national security interests at every turn.”
“For our commander in chief to think otherwise would be naive and dangerous,” McCain said.
McCain and Portman are part of a bipartisan group of senators who have introduced legislation designed to go beyond the punishments against Russia already levied by Obama and to demonstrate to Trump that forcefully responding to Moscow’s meddling isn’t a partisan issue.
The bill would impose mandatory visa bans and freeze the financial assets of anyone who carries out cyberattacks against public or private computer systems and democratic institutions.
The legislation also mandates sanctions in Russia’s all-important energy sector and on investments in the development of civil nuclear projects to rebuke Moscow for its provocations in eastern Ukraine and military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad.