WASHINGTON – Maryland lawmakers on Wednesday joined Democratic efforts in Congress on several fronts to hold the Trump administration accountable on its policies toward Russia and controversial dealings with that nation’s officials.
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, introduced bipartisan legislation Wednesday to give Congress the authority to review any easing of sanctions against Russia.
“Every American, every Republican, every Democrat is concerned about Russia and what they have been doing to violate international law,” Hoyer said. “Not to mention the criminal behavior they may be pursuing and are pursuing, we believe, in Syria.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, and other Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee sent a letter to the White House requesting information regarding former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s communications with Russian officials and the administration’s knowledge of his interactions.
Across the Capitol, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and several other senators sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions requesting an independent special counsel to investigate Flynn.
Hoyer’s Russia Sanctions Review Act is a companion bill to one introduced in the Senate by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. Both bills have support from Democrats and Republicans.
Reps. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., Mike Turner, R-Ohio, and Adam Smith, D-Wash., were co-sponsors of the House bill but did not attend a press conference on the measure in the United States Capitol.
Hoyer said that the need for strong congressional oversight of sanctions is as much a matter of national security as it is reaffirming the country’s commitment to reinforcing, and clarifying, sanctions on Russia.
The current sanctions were imposed by President Barack Obama in 2014 because of Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine. Obama added additional sanctions for Russia’s interference with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“When you have a situation like Russia interfering with our election, that should be sacred,” Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Timonium, told Capital News Service. “So any legislation that we can have that will make a difference to do what’s right for America, I’m for.”
President Donald Trump has taken a more friendly stance against Russia, spurring worries among critics that he may ease sanctions. His secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, did business for years as ExxonMobil’s chairman and CEO with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The White House is embroiled in controversy over the resignation of Michael Flynn as Trump’s national security adviser after revelations that he misled Vice President Mike Pence about conversations with the Russian ambassador.
In their letter to the White House, Cummings and his colleagues pointed to “shocking” news reports that the Justice Department had warned the administration three weeks ago that Flynn had made false statements and could be subject to Russian blackmail.
“These reports raise grave concerns about the honesty and integrity of White House officials with the public. The National Security Adviser provided false information to the public, which was then repeated by several senior White House officials,” the letter read.
Van Hollen and 10 other Democratic senators asked Sessions for an independent probe because “General Flynn’s conversations with Russian Ambassador Kislyak, and possibly other foreign envoys, may be violations of criminal law and ethical standards.”
“Just as alarming as the legal or ethical wrongdoing is the strong likelihood that other members of President Trump’s team were involved in similar conduct, and the apparent cover-up by General Flynn together with other officials in the Trump Administration,” the senators wrote.
The senators urged that a special counsel is necessary “to ensure strict impartiality and prevent any further harm to our national security until these issues are resolved.”
Regarding the Hoyer bill, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said that Russian behavior has only intensified since the sanctions were put into place. He cited more violence in Ukraine, and reports of a Russian hack of recent French elections that attempted to benefit a candidate backed by Putin.
“I’m dismayed that such a step is even necessary,” Schiff said. “These sanctions enjoyed bipartisan support when they were put in place by President Obama, and lifting them without a clear change in Russia’s behavior would be nothing more than an appeasement of Putin’s destabilizing agenda.”
The bill is about dealing with “a bully” in Putin, “who means us harm,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. He added he hopes the House acts quickly to pass the legislation.
Hoyer believes the bill would pass with a veto-proof majority from Congress. Ruppersberger also said the bill should receive quick approval because congressional approval of executive branch actions already falls under congressional jurisdiction.
Cardin’s bill is cosponsored by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and John McCain, R-Ariz.