WASHINGTON — A day after Donald Trump’s first call as president with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, leading congressional Republicans made clear they oppose any attempt by the new administration to wipe away U.S. penalties imposed on Moscow by the Obama White House.
“I’m absolutely opposed to lifting sanctions on the Russians,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Sunday. “If anything, we ought to be looking at increasing them.”
The White House said the issue of sanctions wasn’t discussed during Saturday’s nearly one-hour conversation, which both sides described in positive terms.
Trump, who has said he wants a better relationship with Russia, has been noncommittal on the matter, and his spokesman, Sean Spicer, said Sunday that no decision has been made.
The Obama administration hit Russia with several rounds of punishing sanctions in 2014 in response to its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and support for separatists fighting government forces in eastern Ukraine. These penalties targeted sectors of Russia’s economy, major companies and people in Putin’s inner circle.
Shortly before leaving office, Obama also ordered sanctions on Russian spy agencies, closed two Russian compounds in the U.S. and expelled 35 diplomats that he said were really spies. These sanctions followed an assessment by U.S. intelligence that Moscow meddled in the 2016 election to help Trump.
Sen. Rob Portman, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said it would be a “huge mistake for American foreign policy” to remove the sanctions “until the reasons those sanctions were put in place are resolved.”
Portman, R-Ohio, is part of a bipartisan group of senators who have introduced legislation that would extend the sanctions and put them into law.
McConnell held back on supporting that effort: “Well, we’ll wait and see. I hope the president will follow our advice and not be lifting the sanctions on the Russians.”
White House chief of staff Reince Priebus refused to say whether the subject of Russian interference in the election was raised during Saturday’s call.
“What I will tell you is that it was a positive call,” Priebus said. The two leaders discussed working together in eradicating the Islamic State group and “resolving problems around the world, including Syria,” he said Sunday, going little beyond the brief White House statement issued shortly after the call.
The Kremlin statement was broader. Although there was no mention of the sanctions, it said Putin and Trump discussed the importance of “restoring mutually beneficial trade and economic ties between business circles of the two countries.”
The Kremlin also said Putin and Trump spoke in particular about international issues, including the fight against terrorism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran’s nuclear program, the situation on the Korean peninsula and the Ukraine crisis.
Moscow has applauded Trump’s promises to rebuild U.S.-Russian relations, which have been pushed to their worst level since the Cold War.
Trump on Saturday signed a presidential memorandum on a plan to defeat the Islamic State group. It included the possibility of teaming up with “new coalition partners” and suggested pairing up with Russia wasn’t off the table.
Trump’s tempered approach to U.S.-Russia relations has raised concern among several European allies who believe keeping Russia in check is essential to regional security.
McConnell and Spicer appeared on ABC’s “This Week.” Portman was on CNN’s “State of the Union,” while Priebus spoke on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” (Associated Press)