U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, center, arrive for a news conference in Helsinki, Finland. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

McConnell Warns Russia as Senators Propose Tough New Sanctions

(Bloomberg) -- The fallout in Congress over President Donald Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin stretched into a second week, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issuing a stern warning to Moscow that more sanctions may be in store.

“The Russians better quit messing around in our elections,” McConnell said. “They did it the last time. They better not do it again.”

McConnell’s words stood in contrast to those of Trump eight days earlier when he stood next to Putin in Helsinki and seemed to give equal weight to the U.S. intelligence assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election and the Russian leader’s denials.

Trump has backtracked on some of his remarks, but the news conference with Putin and a subsequent invitation for him to come to Washington in the fall has opened the door to rare Republican pushback against the president on several fronts, including relations with Russia and trade.

Republican senators have joined with Democrats to sponsor legislation that would impose new sanctions on Russia and GOP lawmakers on Tuesday panned the administration’s plan to provide $12 billion in aid to farmers hurt by a spreading trade war as an expensive bandage on an injury created by the White House.

Targeting Debt

Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said on Tuesday they’ll combine on a proposal for increased sanctions on Russia -- including targeting its sovereign debt -- which sent the ruble falling.
That followed on legislation previously introduced by Senators Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, and Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, that would impose stiff penalties if Russia meddles in this year’s election. That determination would be made by the Director of National Intelligence -- not Trump -- under their proposal.

Van Hollen also joined with Republican Senator Pat Toomey in calling for separate sanctions against the 12 Russian intelligence officers indicted in the hacking of Democratic Party computer systems during the 2016 presidential campaign.

McConnell has cited the Rubio-Van Hollen proposal as a possible deterrent. “We’re open to looking at all of that,” the majority leader said. He added that Putin would not be welcome in the Capitol if he accepts an invitation from Trump to visit the White House this fall.

Pompeo Hearing

Separately, the Senate Foreign Relations and Banking committees announced new hearings on countering threats from Moscow. On Wednesday, the Foreign Relations panel plans a hearing where senators in both parties said they plan to grill Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on what commitments Trump made to Putin in Helsinki.

Some Republicans are showing concern and even dismay over last week’s summit, but no one plan of action has emerged. It will take weeks, if not months, for hearings to be held and follow-up legislation to make its way to Trump’s desk. The House is preparing to leave Friday for a five-week break, and that chamber has shown less appetite for challenging the president.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said actions, not words, are needed to counter Putin, but even some of Trump’s fiercest Republican critics want to take their time before acting.

Not Rushing

Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he isn’t yet ready to back another sanctions bill, though he expects something will move forward eventually.

"We don’t want to rush in with our hair on fire or commit ‘ready, fire, aim’ policies that we’ve seen come out of other places," he said. Still, Corker called Trump’s press conference with Putin "a sad day for our country and everyone knows it."

The Treasury Department has warned Congress against legislation that would block transactions and financing for Russian sovereign debt in part because of the pain it would wreak across markets outside Russia’s borders. The department reaffirms that conclusion, a Treasury spokesman said in an emailed reply to questions Tuesday.

In the House, GOP leaders plan to move cautiously on any Russia sanctions that cast a wide net and could have unintended consequences, especially when it comes to sovereign debt markets, according to a GOP aide. House Republicans tweaked a separate Russia sanctions bill last year to resolve concerns from energy companies working on projects with foreign partners.

Seeking Answers

Corker of Tennessee also expressed exasperation that the White House still hasn’t provided details on the president’s meetings with Putin or North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, and said he expects Pompeo to provide answers Wednesday.

"I don’t think anybody knows what happened in North Korea. No one really knows what happened with Putin," Corker said. "I hope he’s in the loop."

The focus on Russia is the latest sign that lawmakers are trying not to be sucked into Trump’s sideshows, such as his proposal to strip Obama-era intelligence officials of their security clearances after they criticized the Helsinki summit.

‘Just Trolling People’

“I think he’s just trolling people," said Speaker Paul Ryan of that particular idea. McConnell said that issue is a presidential prerogative, and he didn’t offer any advice to the president when asked.

A new Quinnipiac poll Tuesday found that American voters believe by a margin of 51 percent to 35 percent that "the Russian government has compromising information about President Trump." The one subgroup that doesn’t believe that is Republicans, by a margin of 70 percent to 18 percent.

The survey found that Trump’s job approval rating is 38 percent, including 82 percent among Republicans, 7 percent among Democrats and — perhaps most distressingly for Republicans on the ballot in November — just 32 percent with independents.

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