The US State Department is continuing to punt on its congressionally mandated obligations to hold Russia accountable for poisoning an ex-spy in the United Kingdom, and despite its continued insistence that it would consult with Congress on the matter, multiple Hill sources tell CNN no such consultations have occurred.
“State’s consultations thus far have been acknowledging that they’re now well past the deadline and telling us they’re working on it,” a senior Democratic Hill aide said. A senior Senate staffer said that “there has been zero” engagement with Congress on the issue beyond the notification in November that Russia had failed to certify that it was not using chemical weapons. That announcement was meant to be accompanied by at least an announcement of a second round of sanctions – but three months, later they have not been imposed.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, criticized the administration’s inaction.
“Too often, the Trump administration resorts to foot dragging when it comes to holding foreign powers accountable, particularly Russia,” Shaheen told CNN Wednesday. “The Kremlin used a nerve agent on NATO soil – it’s hard to overstate how brazen this behavior is. There’s overwhelming bipartisan agreement that the Kremlin should pay a heavy price and the law is crystal clear in this respect. It’s time for some follow through.”
Once the US determined that the Russian government was behind the poisoning of Sergei Skripal with VX nerve agent last March, an attack that also affected Skripal’s daughter and others, the US responded with sanctions on certain technology, required under the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991.
Russia then had 90 days to certify to the US that it is no longer using chemical weapons, and allow inspectors in to prove it – or it would face a much tougher set of sanctions, that could affecting banking, trade or even diplomatic relations.
But when – not surprisingly – Russia failed to meet its requirements, no new penalties were imposed. Instead, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement, “The department is consulting with Congress regarding next steps as required.”
Deputy spokesperson Robert Palladino noted, “We are required to begin coordination and consultation with the United States Congress, and that’s something that we will do,” adding that there was “no timeline associated with these consultations.”
On Thursday a State Department spokesperson didn’t deny that it hadn’t consulted with Congress, telling CNN in a statement that “the State Department continues to engage on the question of these and other sanctions diplomatically.”
“While the Department does not preview sanctions determinations, we participate in a deliberative process with our interagency colleagues on such policy questions and will continue to do so,” they said. “We have previously consulted and will consult with the appropriate Committees of jurisdiction, including (the Senate Foreign Relations Committee), and with Congress more broadly once determinations are made and as the Administration moves forward. “
A Senate staffer tells CNN that, to this day, “the administration did not tell us how or when they planned to impose sanctions.”
A readout from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov Wednesday did say that the secretary “reiterated the U.S. determination to hold Russia accountable for its use of a chemical weapon in Salisbury, UK through sanctions as required by the CBW Act.”
Both Sen. Shaheen and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, have written letters to the State Department on this matter. Menendez said in a statement Wednesday, “President Trump’s willful paralysis in the face of Kremlin aggression has reached a boiling point in Congress. Putin’s actions cannot be tolerated, and the consequences of inaction are quickly compounding – further humanitarian disaster in Syria, regional instability, kidnapping of Ukrainian sailors and seizure of ships, and the steady erosion of international norms.”
Frustrations reach a tipping point
Frustrations around the Skripal inaction and the administration’s soft handed approach to Russia appeared to come to a head on Wednesday with a bipartisan group of senators proposing a massive bill aimed at countering Russian malfeasance.
The bill would force the administration to assess whether Russia is a state sponsor of terror. It would also require a two-thirds Senate vote if Trump decides to leave NATO, a report on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s net worth and assets, and title insurance companies in the US to report information on who owns entities that buy high-priced homes here – as well as would hammer Russia with a host of additional sanctions and new ways of cracking down on Russian disinformation and cyber-crimes.
“One thing is increasingly clear: Moscow will continue to push until it meets genuine resistance. That is why we are introducing a proposal to actually address the realities of the Kremlin threat in a holistic way, all while sending a crystal clear message to our adversaries that the U.S Congress will protect our institutions, allies and values even if the President chooses not to do so,” Sen. Menendez wrote in the accompanying statement.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, usually a stalwart supporter of the administration, said the bill was meant to “to change the status quo and impose meaningful sanctions and measures against Putin’s Russia.”
“He should cease and desist meddling in the U.S. electoral process, halt cyberattacks on American infrastructure, remove Russia from Ukraine, and stop efforts to create chaos in Syria,” the South Carolina Republican said. “The sanctions and other measures contained in this bill are the most hard-hitting ever imposed – and a direct result of Putin’s continued desire to undermine American democracy. The sanctions and measures we propose are designed to respond in the strongest possible fashion.”
Republican Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner echoed his colleagues’ condemnation of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions.
“Putin’s Russia is an outlaw regime that is hell-bent on undermining international law and destroying the U.S.-led liberal global order. From the invasion of Ukraine, carrying out chemical attacks on NATO soil, support for the heinous Assad regime, violations of arms control treaties, and meddling in U.S. elections, Russia’s actions necessitate the strongest possible response from the United States,” Gardner said.
Months of requests
Wednesday’s action follows months of requests from lawmakers of both parties regarding Russia’s role in the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England in March 2018.
Then-House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) – who is now retired – had initially asked the administration in March 2018 to see whether Russia had violated the 1991 law. After the White House failed to respond, Royce wrote again in July – a request that led the Trump administration to determine Russia was indeed responsible for the Skripal attack. That required the US to impose a first tranche of sanctions targeting certain US exports to Russia that could also have military uses.
In September 2018, Shaheen sent a letter to the assistant secretary of the treasury and the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs seeking clarity on the CBW-mandated sanctions. Last month, Menendez wrote to Pompeo to “urge (him) to impose legally mandated sanctions against the Russian Federation for its use of Novichok against Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, United Kingdom.”
“These sanctions are more than two months overdue. I urge you to impose these sanctions immediately to ensure that the statutorily mandated sanctions regime is not undermined,” he wrote.
CNN’s Nicole Gaouette, Zachary Cohen and Jamie Crawford contributed to this report.