Politics • 11 August, 2017

Four Reasons Why Trump Signed the New Sanctions Bill

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Last week, on August 2, 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump signed a bill seeking new sanctions against Russia.

The bill is officially dubbed as the “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act” and it aims to put more economic, political and diplomatic pressure on Iran and North Korea along with the Russian Federation. In his statement on signing the legislation, President Trump described the bill as “seriously flawed – particularly because it encroaches on the executive branch’s authority to negotiate” and he stressed that he had signed the law in preserving the nation's unity. Media outlets like Bloomberg, in turn, considered the bill as a congressional attempt to limit Mr. Trump’s power to single-handedly lift Russian sanctions. To understand reasons behind this bill, we should put emotions aside and look closer at relationships between the White House and Congress within the U.S. political system.

First, Congress and the White House have a long history of rivalry over identifying who should have the last say on the U.S. foreign policy. Ongoing conversations on the bill and bold phrases in President Trump’s statements clearly reflect that fight. Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the dominance of the executive branch in setting a foreign policy strategy and pursuing it. However, through its powerful committees, Congress has leverage over funding the executive branch’s overseas initiatives. Although the Department of State executes the U.S. foreign policy, the White House and Pentagon dominate over designing a foreign policy strategy and implementing its important tactics. During wars in Afghanistan and Iraq the American public has witnessed that State Department diplomats played a secondary role supporting the military and White House officials’ foreign policy strategy. As many experts on U.S. politics and foreign policy point out, the last Secretary of State who independently pursued American foreign policy was Henry Kissinger. Since the 1970s there hasn’t been a Secretary of State with equal power to Kissinger’s. In short, through adopting this bill Congress one more time has attempted to increase its institutional power in setting American foreign policy in the Trump era.

Second, the fact that Congress passed the law in both chambers with the overwhelming majority of the votes (419-3 in the House of Representatives, 98-2 in the Senate) demonstrates that it has sought an additional leverage of putting political pressure on President Trump. These figures showed that Congress overrode a potential presidential veto beforehand. Furthermore, current speculative discussions on the collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign hadn’t allowed the White House to take decisive actions to kill the bill before it reaches President Trump’s desk. Through passing the legislation members of Congress could show the electorate that the legislative branch can make the U.S. President somehow accountable. The passage of the law also served as an effective way to differentiate GOP in Congress and President Trump. After their failed attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, the 115th Congress controlled by GOP needed a legislative victory before the August recess. Unlike President Trump, members of Congress seem more realistic on their capabilities in this session to pass bills covering their campaign promises, including tax reform, healthcare, and infrastructure. And they couldn’t miss this opportunity leading towards the legislative victory. 

Third, the U.S. electorate is more interested in domestic issues rather that foreign issues. They prefer to discuss more tax, healthcare, guns, and immigration instead of sanctions targeting Iran or North Korea. For that reason, members of Congress try to be more tactic in their statements and actions on domestic policies and let themselves to be loquacious on punishing foreign governments threating American values. Legislators are also aware that they will be questioned and put accountable for their votes on internal issues than that of external ones. Why not vote “yea” for a bill which is in the spotlight and doesn’t possess the same responsibility as bills dealing with domestic issues?

Fourth, both the Democrats and Republicans in Congress needed to earn media coverage and political points through highlighting their “efforts” to punish an external adversary. In particular, if it’s an erstwhile rivalry Russia for its attempts to undermine American democracy. A bipartisan agreement, which can be seen once in a blue moon in today’s politically polarized legislative branch, over the new sanctions bill supports this statement. By comparing his/her tough-on-Russia stance with “softness” of President Trump’s Russia policy, future ambitious American presidential nominees, most of whom might emerge among today’s outspoken Trump critics, try to formulate his/her views on U.S. foreign policy before the 2020 election.

Following this logic, we have to answer the next questions. Will we see a series of bills attempting to put more pressure on President Trump? Are Republicans in Congress alienating themselves from Trump? What does this bill mean for members of Congress facing tough elections in 2018 in electoral districts where Trump enjoys support?

The truth is: we don’t have responses yet. But the answers to these questions directly depend on two factors: results of former FBI director Mueller’s special investigation into the Kremlin’s role in the 2016 election and Americans’ support of President Trump.
 

Shalkar NURSEIT

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