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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

Trump pullback on Russia sanctions is a quiet scandal

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump chat during an international summit in Vietnam on Nov. 11, 2017. Credit: AP / Jorge Silva

It’s hard to believe what’s coming out of the U.S. Treasury Department. The esteemed agency is telling Americans, straight-faced, that sanctions planned against Russia should be spiked because they could be counterproductive to U.S. and world economic interests. This followed a head-scratching U.S. State Department statement claiming that sanctions against Russia aren’t needed because the mere threat of them is “serving as a deterrent.”

This week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Russia is already meddling in our 2018 elections. His warning followed a report from Hamilton 68, a private effort to track Russian cyberwar, showing Russia-controlled bots and fake social media accounts lighting up in late January to spread the hashtag #releasethememo.

The sanctions were passed by Congress in July in retaliation for Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The Senate passed the sanctions bill 98-2; the House 419-3.

If Treasury is to be believed, a bipartisan Congress, in its near-unanimous approval of the sanctions, showed itself more economically obtuse than its harshest critics could have imagined. But Treasury is not to believed in this case. Not at all.

Russia is a pipsqueak among nations economically, and every member of Congress knows it, or should. Russia might have a big nuclear stockpile and a tough-talking autocrat at the helm, but its annual economic output in 2015 was about half California’s. New York and Texas have bigger economies than Russia. So do Canada, India, Brazil and eight other nations.

So why is Treasury spinning a doom-and-gloom scenario on sanctions, which are supposed to include the revocation of U.S. visas, a freeze of U.S. assets of Russian oligarchs suspected of criminal activity, and a blockage of the purchase of new Russian bonds? Why did Treasury warn Congress of “serious spillover effects” if they are implemented?

It’s hard to imagine any reason other than that the Trump administration doesn’t want sanctions on Russia enacted. That’s hardly a stretch. President Donald Trump fought tooth-and-nail against the sanctions bill last year. Even when signing it into law, he made clear that he was doing so only because his veto would be futile.

Now, it seems, Treasury is providing political cover, however preposterous, for the administration’s decision to ignore the will of Congress.

A bipartisan Congress should call bull-oney on Treasury, so to speak, and demand that the retaliatory will of the American people be delivered to Moscow posthaste. We’ve waited long enough. But there are no signs yet that such a bipartisan coalition is being reassembled.

News of the unlawful Russia sanctions pullback on Jan. 29 sadly took a back seat to debate over the Republican House Intelligence Committee memo alleging political corruption at the FBI. Another possible government shutdown, with more immigration debate, also stole the spotlight. That rendered national discussion over the aborted Russia sanctions of minor interest at best. Most Republicans in Congress don’t seem to want to talk about it. At least not yet.

America is split on so many things, but if the actions of our representatives in Washington last July were any indication, most of us could at least agree on one thing: Russia needs to pay a high price for trying to subvert our democracy in 2016. Sanctions would act as both punishment and deterrent.

Are things so bad that we can’t even agree on that anymore? Is defending our nation from a historic and malevolent adversary less important than circling the wagons around a president who, inexplicably, and at every turn, coddles Russia’s leadership?

We’re about find out. Listen for the silence.

William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.