here’s a huge great chunk of new smears via michael isakoff & yahoo ‘news’

How the Trump administration’s secret efforts to ease Russia sanctions fell short
Michael Isikoff, Yahoo News, Jun 2 2017

In the early weeks of the Trump administration, former Obama administration officials and State Dept boxtops fought an intense, behind-the-scenes battle to head off efforts by incoming boxtops to normalize relations with Russia, according to multiple sources familiar with the events. Unknown to the public at the time, top Trump administration boxtops, almost as soon as they took office, tasked State Dept staffers with developing proposals for the lifting of economic sanctions, the return of diplomatic compounds and other steps to relieve tensions with Moscow. These efforts to relax or remove punitive measures imposed by Obama in retaliation for Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and (supposed) meddling in the 2016 election alarmed some State Dept boxtops, who immediately began lobbying congress critturs to quickly pass legislation to block the move, the sources said. Dan Fried, a veteran State Dept boxtop who served as chief coordinator for sanctions policy until he retired in late February, said:

There was serious consideration by the White House to unilaterally rescind the sanctions. In the first few weeks of the administration, I received several panicky calls from government boxtops who told me they had been directed to develop a sanctions-lifting package and implored me: “Please, my God, can’t you stop this?” I grew so concerned that I contacted Capitol Hill allies including Ben Cardin, the ranking minority member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to urge them to move quickly to pass legislation that would codify the sanctions in place, making it difficult for Pres Trump to remove them.

Tom Malinowski, who had just stepped down as Obama’s Asst Sec State for Human Rights, told Yahoo News he too joined the effort to lobby Congress after learning from former colleagues that the administration was developing a plan to lift sanctions and possibly arrange a summit between Trump and Putin as part of an effort to achieve a “grand bargain” with Moscow. Malinowski said:

It would have been a win-win for Moscow.

Only days before he left office, Malinowski announced his own round of sanctions against senior Russian boxtops for human rights abuses under the so-called Magnitsky Act. The previously unreported efforts by Fried and others to check the Trump administration’s policy moves cast new light on the unseen tensions over Russia policy during the early days of the new administration. It also potentially takes on new significance for congressional and DoJ investigators in light of reports that before the administration took office, Jared Kushner and Michael Flynn discussed setting up a private channel of communications with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, talks that appear to have laid the groundwork for the proposals that began circulating right after the inauguration. A senior White House boxtop said:

We’ve been reviewing all the sanctions, and this is not exclusive to Russia. All the sanctions regimes have mechanisms built in to alleviate them. It’s been our hope that the Russians would take advantage of that.

To be sure, Trump’s interest in improving relations with Moscow was hardly a secret during last year’s presidential campaign. Trump said in a Apr 28 2016 Fox News interview:

If we can make a great deal for our country and get along with Russia, that would be a tremendous thing. I would love to try it.

But there was nothing said in public about specific steps the new administration took toward reaching the kind of deal the president had talked about during the campaign, without requiring the Russians to acknowledge responsibility for the annexation of Crimea or Moscow’s (supposed) “influence campaign” during the 2016 election. Days after Trump took office, boxtops who had moved into the Sec State’s seventh-floor office sent a “tasking” order to the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs to develop a menu of options to improve relations with Russia as part of a deal in exchange for Russian cooperation in the war against Daesh in Syria, according to two former boxtops. Those options were to include sanctions relief as well as other steps that were a high priority for Moscow, including the return of two diplomatic compounds, one on Long Island and the other on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, that were shut by President Obama on Dec 29 on the grounds that they were being used for espionage purposes. The return of the compounds is again being actively considered by the administration, according to a WaPo report Thursday. When asked about the compounds, or dachas as the Russians call them, the senior White House official said:

Obviously, the Russians have been agitating about this. But it would be inaccurate to report there has been an agreement to return them without some reciprocal move on Moscow’s part.

Since this was the same State Dept bureau that had helped develop the punitive measures in the first place, and actively pushed for them under the leadership of Asst Sec State for Eastern Europe Victoria Nuland, who had just resigned, the tasking order left staffers feeling “deeply uncomfortable,” said one source. These concerns led some State Dept boxtops to also reach out to Malinowski, an Obama political appointee who had just stepped down. Malinowski said that like Fried, he called Cardin and other congressional allies, including aides to Walnuts McCain, and urged them to codify the sanctions before Trump could lift them, effectively locking them in place. The lobbying effort produced some immediate results. On Feb 7, Cardin and Sen. Lindsay Graham introduced bipartisan legislation to bar the administration from granting sanctions relief without first submitting a proposal to do so for congressional review. Graham said in a statement at the time:

Russia has done nothing to be rewarded with sanctions relief!

Cardin said in his own statement:

If Pindostan were to lift sanctions without verifiable progress by Russia in living up to agreements in Ukraine, we would lose all credibility in the eyes of our allies in Europe and around he world.

A Cardin spox told Yahoo News in an emailed statement:

I can also confirm that the senator did hear from senior Obama officials encouraging him to take sanctions steps, but that he had already been considering it as well.

The proposed bill lost some of its urgency six days later when Flynn resigned. After that, said Malinowski, “it didn’t take too long for it to become clear that if they lifted sanctions, there would be a political firestorm.” But the political battles over the issue are far from over. Cardin, McCain and Graham are separately pushing another sanctions bill, imposing tough new measures in response to Russia’s (supposed) election interference. The measures have so far been blocked for consideration within the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by its chairman, Bob Corker, who says he wants to first hear the administration’s position on the issue. In the meantime, Malinowski said he is concerned that there may be other, less public ways the administration can undermine the Russian sanctions. He noted that much of their force results from parallel sanctions imposed by the EU, whose members must unanimously renew them each year, and said:

I had this nightmare vision of Steve Bannon or Sebastian Gorka calling in the Hungarian ambassador and telling them Pres Trump would not be displeased if his country opposed the renewal of sanctions.

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