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Chafing over thwarted rapprochement, Trump blames Congress for Russia chill

Chafing over thwarted rapprochement, Trump blames Congress for Russia chill
August 3, 2017

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump chafed on Thursday over the new dive in US relations with Russia, widening a rift with his own Republican Party as he blamed Congress for causing the tensions with a new package of sanctions.

Far removed from his election campaign promises to improve relations with Vladimir Putin and his praise of the Russian president, Trump found himself the target of Kremlin scorn after he reluctantly signed the sanctions against Moscow into law on Wednesday.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on Wednesday evening the measure showed the Trump administration was utterly powerless. The sanctions amounted to a full-scale trade war and the hope of improved relations with the new administration in Washington was over, Medvedev said in a Facebook post.

Even while campaigning for the White House, Trump's stated desire for improved ties with Moscow raised eyebrows among his fellow Republicans, as well as Democrats. Prospects for a rapprochement largely evaporated once he took office in January over U.S. intelligence agencies' findings that Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. election campaign.

Congress passed the new sanctions to punish Russia for the election interference and the annexation of Ukraine's Crimea in 2014, and included provisions allowing lawmakers to stop Trump from easing the penalties.

Trump, who has publicly expressed frustration with Congress, lashed out again at lawmakers on Thursday.

"Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low," he said in a Twitter post.

"You can thank Congress, the same people that can't even give us HCare!" he added, referring to a bitter setback this month when Republicans failed to push healthcare legislation through the Senate.

Republicans, who control both chambers of Congress, and Democrats are strongly divided on many issues but the sanctions measure drew wide support from lawmakers in both parties.

Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a leading voice on foreign policy in the party, was among the Republican lawmakers pushing back hard at Trump's tweet.

"Our relationship w/ Russia is at dangerous low. You can thank Putin for attacking our democracy, invading neighbors & threatening our allies," McCain said on Twitter.

Trump had little choice but to sign the legislation because Congress clearly had the votes to override his potential veto. He strongly criticized the bill as "significantly flawed" and complained it infringed on his presidential powers to shape foreign policy.

Russia has loomed large over the first six months of the Trump presidency. U.S. congressional panels and a special counsel are investigating the election interference in probes that also are looking into any potential role by Trump aides.

Moscow denies any meddling and Trump, regularly denouncing the investigations as a political witch hunt, denies any collusion by his campaign.

Republican U.S. Senator Tom Cotton, asked about Trump's tweet in an MSNBC interview, agreed U.S.-Russian ties were "at a very low point" but rejected the president's blame.

"Ultimately, the responsibility falls primarily on Vladimir Putin," Cotton said, pointing to Russian actions over Ukraine, arms control treaty violations and alleged meddling in various Western nations.

He and other Republican lawmakers pointed to previous presidential administrations' policies, including under Trump's Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama.

"You can thank years of Russian aggression met by a feckless U.S. response and devastating defense cuts for the current situation," Republican U.S. Representative Mike Gallagher wrote in a Twitter post responding to Trump's tweet.

Pence's Tough Stance

Despite Trump's public misgivings about the sanctions, Vice President Mike Pence presented a tough stance against Russia during a tour of Baltic states this week.

Pence assured the leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - all once part of the Soviet Union - that they would have U.S. support in the event of Russian aggression. Russia will hold large-scale military maneuvers in nearby Belarus this month.

Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, asked for his reaction to Trump's tweet, told MSNBC: "I can just tell you we saw real bipartisanship on Capitol Hill when it came to these sanctions. Democrats and Republicans agreed we had to tell North Korea, Iran and Russia 'enough was enough.'"

Durbin said the bill deliberately included measures to ensure Trump imposed the sanctions and did not lift them. "We put requirements in the bill which most presidents have never seen to make sure this happens," he said.

The Kremlin dismissed the sanctions on Thursday.

"Nobody should doubt that Russia will protect and defend its interests," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said at a conference call with reporters. "We in general believe that this policy of sanctions is short-sighted, unlawful and hopeless."

Even before Trump signed the bill, Putin on Sunday ordered the United States to cut about 60 percent of its diplomatic staff in Russia by Sept. 1 and took away a summer house used by U.S. Embassy staff.

The sanctions will affect a range of Russian industries and could hurt the country's economy, already weakened by 2014 sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea. Several provisions target the Russian energy sector, with new limits on U.S. investment in Russian companies and restrictions on energy exploration involving Russian firms.

The sanctions also affect North Korea and Iran.