Congressional Democrats are demanding answers from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson over the failure of the State Department to spend money allocated for countering Russian election meddling.
“This is the latest example of the Trump administration both ignoring the will of Congress and letting Russia off the hook for its attack on American democracy,” Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee wrote in a letter to Tillerson that was obtained by The Daily Beast.
The letter marks an escalation against the Trump administration from lawmakers who have viewed its Russia policy as lackluster, if not feckless. And it comes on the heels of a Sunday New York Times report showing that the State Department had not spent a dime of the $120 million Congress appropriated for the purpose of countering foreign election-meddling and anti-democratic propaganda efforts—$60 million per year for fiscal years 2017 and 2018. The Pentagon transferred just $40 million of that funding to the State Department’s Global Engagement Center this week.
“It remains unclear if or when any funding will be put to use. This baffling inaction has failed to bolster America and our allies at a critical moment,” lawmakers said in their letter, which was signed by all committee Democrats except for Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI). Gabbard’s office did not immediately return request for comment.
Committee members plan to press Tillerson on these and other matters when he appears before their panel later this month. One particular line of interest among Foreign Affairs Committee Democrats is why Tillerson’s posture toward Russia seems so out of tune with fellow members of President Donald Trump’s national security team. While the secretary of state recently told Fox News that it would be “very difficult to pre-empt” Russia’s disinformation campaigns “once they decide” to launch those efforts, U.S. intelligence chiefs have testified to Congress that the executive branch has not done enough to counter the ongoing threat from Russia.
“It's unclear how you reached this conclusion considering the administration hasn't even tried,” lawmakers wrote. “The administration has not imposed the sanctions passed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities last summer, and the president has continued to deny Russian interference while attacking our own intelligence and law enforcement communities.”
The Trump administration has also taken heat from Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill over its decision not to immediately implement mandatory sanctions against Russia in response to its election-meddling and incursions into eastern Europe and the Middle East.
In declining to immediately impose those sanctions, the State Department argued that the mere threat of sanctions was already acting as a “deterrent” against foreign investment into those Russian entities. The department declined to give examples of transactions that were halted or scrapped, and lawmakers pointed out that the impetus for passing the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) last year was to punish Moscow for its election-meddling and other practices that have been met with international condemnation. While CAATSA was being crafted, administration officials actively pushed lawmakers to water down certain provisions that they believed unfairly handicap the executive branch.
Complicating matters further is Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who told the House appropriations and financial services committees in recent weeks that the Treasury Department would, in fact, be soon rolling out sanctions based on its classified report on Russian oligarchs. Under CAATSA, the department was required to release a public list of Russian oligarchs and top political figures with ties to the Kremlin, in addition to a more extensive, classified annex that was submitted to Congress.
Much of the public oligarchs report was cribbed from a Forbes list of Russian billionaires, and some of the individuals on the list are critics of the Kremlin—leaving the impression that it was put together hastily in an effort to comply with the law by the stated deadline of Jan. 30. But CAATSA does not require the department to create a sanctions regime based on the oligarchs list. Republican and Democratic lawmakers and aides told The Daily Beast that they would prefer that the administration first comply with the law and implement the mandatory sanctions in response to election-meddling and other destabilizing actions. But Mnuchin hasn’t offered a specific timeline about that, either.
“I expect in the next several weeks, we will be moving forward with sanctions on Russia as a result of the act. So I can assure you that, both in my discussions with the president, he is fully supportive of the work we’re doing and we have a large team working on it as we speak,” Mnuchin told the House Appropriations Committee this week.
Mnuchin gave senators a classified briefing last month on possible actions relating to the oligarchs list, according to multiple lawmakers who attended. But House members have not received a similar briefing and lawmakers say the administration can’t agree among itself, let alone coordinate with Congress.
“I haven’t heard anything directly from the president on sanctions other than he’s not going to do it; and from the secretary that they are going to do it but that he wouldn’t give specifications. So I think I’m justified being skeptical that anything will happen,” Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL), who sits on the appropriations and intelligence committees, told The Daily Beast. “We have seen the secretary say things like this before, and there’s a disagreement with another agency or the White House. This is a dysfunctional administration.”
The Treasury Department did not respond to a request for comment on the possibility of imminent sanctions-related announcements.