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White House Signals Support for Bill on Russia Sanctions -- Update

24 Jul 2017 12:06 am
By Michael C. Bender and Natalie Andrews 

WASHINGTON -- The White House on Sunday indicated President Donald Trump was likely to support legislation that would punish Russia for interfering in the 2016 election, after months of questioning assertions about Moscow's involvement.

The Trump administration's response to the sanctions bill is being closely watched, because a failure to sign it could prompt criticism that Mr. Trump is siding with President Vladimir Putin amid investigations into the Russian interference in the election and into possible ties between Mr. Trump's associates and Russia.

Mr. Trump's, son, Donald Trump Jr., his son in law, Jared Kushner, and his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort are scheduled to appear before Senate committees this week in connection with Russia. The House is scheduled to vote on the sanctions package on Tuesday.

"We support where the legislation is now," White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on ABC's "This Week." Ms. Sanders had said previous versions of the bill contained provisions that eroded the president's power to conduct diplomacy.

Mr. Sanders's boss, Anthony Scaramucci, struck a more cautious tone. On CNN's "State of the Union," he said Mr. Trump "hasn't made the decision yet to sign that bill," but suggested he wasn't sure what would happen because it his "second or third day on the job." Mr. Scaramucci was named the White House's new communications director on Friday.

The Trump team's messages have diverged at times, not just on the sanctions bill but also the president's inquiries about pardons and whether Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed by the Justice Department to handle the Russia probe, and his attorneys have conflicts of interest that would taint the investigation.

In an interview following Mr. Scaramucci's CNN appearance, Ms. Sanders said there was no discrepancy between her comments and Mr. Scaramucci's. She said the administration supported the bill but wouldn't commit to signing it until a final version passes Congress. "There could still be more changes," she said.

Congressional negotiators reached a deal late Friday to advance the bill, so such changes are unlikely.

Mr. Trump has questioned the findings of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election, and Russia has denied the accusations. Investigators are also looking into any potential collusion between Trump campaign associates and the Russians, and the president has said no such collusion occurred.

In an interview last week, John Dowd, one of the main outside lawyers representing Mr. Trump in the Russia investigation, dismissed the notion that the Trump team would try to undermine Mr. Mueller's investigation by highlighting alleged conflicts of interest, calling it "collateral nonsense."

On Sunday, Jay Sekulow, another member of Mr. Trump's legal team, said on ABC's "This Week" that Mr. Trump's attorneys are "always looking at the issue of potential conflicts."

Mr. Sekulow also disputed a report that the president has been asking advisers about his authority to pardon former campaign officials, family members and himself.

"We have not, and I continue to not, have conversations with the president of the United States regarding pardons," Mr. Sekulow said. "Pardons have not been discussed, and pardons are not on the table."

Speaking around the same time on Fox News Sunday, Mr. Scaramucci said he had talked to the president in the White House about his power to pardon officials as it related to the Russia probe. "I'm in the Oval Office with the president last week, we're talking about that," Mr. Scaramucci said. "He brought that up" while saying he doesn't need to be pardoned, Mr. Scaramucci said.

"There's nobody around him that has to be pardoned," Mr. Scaramucci added. "He was just making the statement about the power of pardons. So now all of the speculation and all the spin and, 'Oh, he's going to pardon himself and do all this other nonsense.' The president does not need to pardon himself."

Mr. Trump tweeted about the Russia investigation Sunday afternoon, saying "As the phony Russian Witch Hunt continues, two groups are laughing at this excuse for a lost election taking hold, Democrats and Russians!" He added, "It's very sad that Republicans, even some that were carried over the line on my back, do very little to protect their president."

On Monday, Mr. Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, will meet with the Senate Intelligence Committee behind closed doors. On Wednesday, Donald Trump Jr. and Mr. Manafort, Mr. Trump's former campaign chairman, are scheduled to meet privately with the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The three men, part of the Trump campaign's inner circle, attended a meeting with Russians during the campaign. The person arranging the meeting told Mr. Trump Jr. that the Russians could provide negative information on Democrat Hillary Clinton as part of Moscow's effort to help Mr. Trump get elected.

The White House says nothing of significance occurred at the meeting. "It was a nonevent," Mr. Scaramucci said Sunday on CNN. "It had no impact on the campaign."

The House is slated to vote Tuesday on a package of sanctions against Russia, Iran and North Korea, according to guidance released by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.). The new Russian sanctions, which passed the Senate last month in a 98-2 vote, have been held up in the House over disputes about a provision that would have prevented the House minority from introducing legislation to block the president if he chose to remove the sanctions.

On Sunday, Ms. Sanders said on ABC's "This Week" that necessary changes had been made to the legislation.

"Look, the administration is supportive of being tough on Russia, particularly in putting these sanctions in place," she said. "The original piece of legislation was poorly written, but we were able to work with the House and Senate....And we support where the legislation is now."

The new deal is a compromise between Republican and Democratic leaders. It also makes some concessions to oil-and-gas companies. The compromise legislation, which must pass the House and Senate, would tighten restrictions on the extension of credit to Russian entities and limit Russian businesses in the energy and defense sectors from partnering with U.S. citizens. It also would require the president to seek Congress's permission to relax any sanctions against Russia.

The European Union raised alarm over the sanctions deal, urging Congress to coordinate with its G-7 partners. An EU spokesperson said in a statement Saturday that the bill could have "unintended consequences" for Europe's "economic and energy security interests."

Write to Michael C. Bender at Mike.Bender@wsj.com and Natalie Andrews at Natalie.Andrews@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 23, 2017 20:06 ET (00:06 GMT)

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