Will Trump Fall on the Sanctions Sword?
Since president-elect Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election, there has been a plethora of speculations, discussions, and even predictions defining the future of the Trump presidency. Some have even speculated he would end up being impeached for either gross foreign and security policy mistakes, or due to gross conflict of interest – president of the U.S. vis-à-vis CEO of Trump global enterprises. While these speculations and predictions have some basis in Trump’s words and actions of the past, it should also be noted that Trump is unpredictable. So an early end to his presidency may be wishful thinking.
Reports of Trump’s meetings and other communication in the post-election period, and the personnel he is selecting for his administration do not assuage the fears he has engendered in people at home and the trepidation of governments abroad. It will get worse!
I am introducing here a new dynamic and not repeating speculations and predictions proliferating on Trump’s future presidency. As president, Trump will have to make important decisions on the future of U.S. sanctions imposed on the Russian Federation. If the stories are true about the links between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, a trap has been laid for Trump. The stakes are high!
The U.S. Congress voted overwhelmingly to enact, and President Barack Obama signed into law the “Support for the Sovereignty, Integrity, Democracy, and Economic Stability of Ukraine Act of 2014” (Russia-Ukraine Sanctions Act, or Act) which mandated the President to impose sanctions against Russia on matters related to Ukraine.
The law is specific: “The President shall impose the sanctions” on individuals meeting certain criteria, detailed in the Act, including officials of the Russian government. The Act and a series of Presidential Executive Orders targeted members of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, Russian financial, energy, and military sectors,
as well as Ukrainians involved in the cessation or annexation of the Crimea. The sanctions targets are critical to the Russian economy and probably Putin’s future hold on power. Putin is manically unsettled by President Obama’s Russian policies. Moreover, the European Union has also imposed sanctions on Russian targets.
The targets include individuals and entities determined by the President to have perpetrated, or was responsible for ordering, controlling, or otherwise directing, significant acts of violence or gross human rights abuses in Ukraine against persons associated with the antigovernment protests in Ukraine that began on November 21, 2013, as well as significant acts that are intended to undermine the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine, including acts of economic extortion.
Where Trump may have the most difficulty are the sanctions targeting officials of the Russian Government as determined by the President to be “responsible for, complicit in, or responsible for ordering, controlling, or otherwise directing, acts of significant corruption in Ukraine, including the expropriation of private or public assets for personal gain, corruption related to government contracts or the extraction of natural resources, bribery, or the facilitation or transfer of the proceeds of corruption to foreign jurisdictions;” and any individual that has “materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services in support of, the commission of” certain designated acts.
The Act further “authorized and encouraged” the President to impose sanctions on individuals and entities, including officials of the Russian Government complicit in or responsible for significant corruption, not necessarily related to Ukraine.
On the basis of U.S. intelligence findings, the U.S. Treasury Department (Treasury), in consultation with the U.S. State Department, decided on the persons to be designated for the targeted sanctions – asset blocking and U.S. visa denial and revocation. The President is also mandated to exercise powers granted pursuant to the International Economic Emergency Powers Act that are necessary “… and prohibit all transactions in all property and interests in property of a person determined by the President [fitting the criteria detailed in the Act] if such property and interests in property are in the United States…” or comes within U.S. jurisdiction.
Treasury has imposed sanctions on high ranking individuals in the Russian government and on entities with significant impact on the Russian economy, as well as Crimean political leaders of the Russian-annexed Crimea. Those targeted include: a Presidential Aide and a Presidential adviser, leaders of the Duma (the Russian parliament), Russia’s prime minister, other senior Russian government officials, and individuals who benefit from their relationships with Putin – members of Putin’s inner circle.
In September 2014, Treasury extended targeted financial sanctions to Russia’s largest bank, deepened existing sanctions on Russian financial institutions (Russia’s Central Bank included), expanded sanctions in Russia’s energy sector, and increased the number of sanctioned Russian entities in the energy and defense sectors. Treasury also designated and blocked the assets of five Russian state-owned defense technology firms for operating in the arms or related materiel sector in Russia. Treasury also imposed sanctions that prohibit the exportation of goods, services (not including financial services), or technology in support of exploration or production for Russian deep water, Arctic offshore, or shale projects that have the potential to produce oil, to five of Russia’s largest energy companies.
During the presidential campaign there were reports fueled by statements attributed to one of Trump’s sons that lots of Russian money had flowed into Trump’s business enterprises. If this is the case, Trumps’ enterprises’ future relations with Russian financiers may be impacted by continued U.S. financial sanctions against Russia. As president, Trump could effect changes in the sanctions regime.
The law provides authority to the U.S. President to waive application of sanctions against Russia if he “determines that such waiver is in the national security interests of the United States,” after first notifying the relevant Congressional Committees providing justification of such waiver. Exercising this waiver authority will be detrimental to president Trump. Trump’s relationship with Putin will be tested; an end to the courtship, perhaps! Putin’s trap will catch Trump; Putin will prioritize sanctions waiver. Trump will attempt to accommodate Putin who will not back down because of the sanctions’ negative effects on Russia’s economy. As the Russian economy deteriorates, Putin’s hold on power is threatened.
Trump will be caught “between a rock and hard place.” Trump “the great negotiator” may be offered some concessions on Syria which he will likely attempt to use as justification for waiving the sanctions. Another Putin trick! Any attempt by Trump to grant Putin’s wish will be strongly opposed in the Congress, by Republicans and Democrats alike. Will Trump fall on the sanctions sword by acceding to Putin’s request? Should Trump defy the will of the Congress on this issue, his actions will provide the basis for impeachment – grossly jeopardizing U.S. national security, a high crime and misdemeanor.
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward, B.A., J.D., LL.M., is an attorney and international consultant, and Adjunct Professor in the Homeland Security Graduate Program at the University of the District of Columbia. As former Ambassador of Jamaica to the United Nations he served two years on the U.N. Security Council. He was Expert Adviser to the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee for three years. He specializes in terrorism/counterterrorism legal and policy frameworks; anti-money laundering and countering financing of terrorism (AML/CFT); sanctions implementation; crime and security; human rights, rule of law and governance.