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Imad K. Harb

Trump snubs Congress in Putin's service

There is more to Trump's relations with Putin than meets the eye [AFP]

Date of publication: 8 February, 2018

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Comment: The Trump administration is failing to confront Russia's past and current behaviour, and is setting a dangerous example to other leaders, writes Imad K. Harb.
One thing seems almost totally immutable in American foreign policy under President Donald Trump. The president has never chastised Russia or disparaged its leader, Vladimir Putin, despite his repeated criticism of other countries' behaviour and supposed ill-treatment of the United States.

Neither has the Trump administration been willing to devise or enforce policy prescriptions to face up to Russia for its past and current behaviour.

The latest episode in this trend came last week, when the administration missed the deadline of a congressional mandate to impose new sanctions on Russia by 29 January, for interfering in the 2016 presidential elections.

Congressional legislation

In July 2017, Congress overwhelmingly passed a law that required the imposition after six months, of new sanctions on Russia, and curbed Trump's freedom to eliminate others previously imposed by the Obama administration.

The margin in the House of Representatives was 419-3 in favour and in the Senate 98-2. Finding no way out, the president signed the legislation into law in August.

As the 29 January deadline passed, the Department of State announced that what was important was the message the proposed sanctions were slated to send, not their actual implementation. The department's spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, declared that just the threat of the sanctions was sufficient to deter Russia from repeating its malfeasance.

In the meantime, a few minutes before the deadline, the Treasury Department issued a list of the names of Russian millionaires allied with Putin, simply to satisfy a provision in the legislation, but without specifying what sanctions were to be imposed on them.  

Not only did the administration ignore the congressional mandate, but it even allowed Russians previously barred from the United States to come in and meet with security and intelligence officials.

Read more: Russia inquiry will be the thorn in Trump's side

Good cop, bad cop

Last week, the director of Russia's foreign service, Sergei Naryshkin, was allowed to enter the country despite being on a sanctions list from 2014. He also is reported to have met with the American Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, and with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, to discuss counterterrorism issues.

But while the president himself refrains from criticising Russia, some of his officials in the last week were ready to speak up.

CIA Director Pompeo told a BBC interviewer that he believes Russia will try to interfere in the 2018 congressional elections. At a Republican retreat last week, US Representative to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, told attendees that Russia is not a friend, and indeed remains an adversary.

She even claimed, erroneously one might add, that the Trump administration has been the toughest on Russia since the Reagan administration.

Domestic and international damage

Flouting existing law and congressional unanimity on dealings with Russia is a clear indication President Trump is going out of his way to avoid a confrontation with Putin and Russia. This fuels speculation - slowly being borne out by investigations - that there is more to Trump's relations with Putin than meets the eye.

Trump's ignoring of the law sends clear signals to dictators around the world that institutions can be manipulated and laws subverted for political ends

Additionally, Trump's behaviour sets a dangerous precedent that could open the door to other illegalities that, in turn, would do irreparable harm to the rule of law in the United States.

That a Republican majority in both houses of Congress would allow this to happen shows collusion in weakening the country's weakening institutional life. It also shows that the Republican party is fine with eroding the principles of separation of powers, and the checks and balances enshrined in the American constitution.

Importantly, Trump's failure to abide by the law sends clear signals to dictators around the world that institutions can be manipulated and laws subverted for political ends; in this case, to cover up potential wrongdoing.

The Trump administration has already gone on the record declaring that the promotion of democracy and protection of human rights around the world are not principles of its foreign policy. Instead, it wants to focus on transacting bilaterally to benefit solely that which is in the American national interest.

By disobeying congressional mandates and their underlying legal and moral obligations, the administration sends yet another signal that the United States should not be trusted to be a protector of the rule of law.

In that, it is certainly doing the bidding of Russian president Vladimir Putin and many others like him.

This raises some important questions:

How can the United States remain a central actor in safeguarding transparency and legality around the world?

If American laws are flouted by the American president, how, for instance, can the United States criticise Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for eliminating any challengers in the upcoming presidential elections?

How can it criticise Putin from doing the same in his country's elections?

Finally, when will Republicans in Congress get the gumption to stand up to Trump's illegal behaviour, especially that related to his position regarding Russia?

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.

Follow us on Twitter: @The_NewArab

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