Congressional Republicans and Democrats are threatening to force President Trump’s hand in sanctioning Turkey if he does not outline soon what further punishment awaits the NATO ally for purchasing a Russian-made antimissile system in defiance of U.S. sanctions targeting such transactions with Moscow.
Lawmakers want Trump to impose sanctions on Turkey, which took possession of the Russian S-400 system despite warnings that doing so would cost Ankara the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and trigger mandatory punitive measures. Trump announced in July the cancellation of the F-35, but he has not indicated whether his administration will apply additional sanctions.
The president has resisted that idea as his national security team seeks to prevent Turkey from invading northeastern Syria, where U.S. allies — local Kurdish fighters whom the Turkish government considers a threat — have been battling the Islamic State.
As Trump deliberates, key lawmakers are weighing how to act if he does not.
“We would have to pass a law that wipes out any sort of national security waiver — which we try not to do because we want to give presidents that flexibility,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “But if it’s abused, we’ll have to act, I imagine.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) has suggested “tiered sanctions” detailing step-by-step consequences Turkey would face for making progressively closer moves toward Russia — reasoning that such an approach would leave Trump “some ability to continue to negotiate” with Turkey “and encourage them to stay in NATO.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James E. Risch (R-Idaho), who is close to Trump but opposes waiving sanctions on Turkey, declined to detail his plans. Any effort in the Senate to put a check on Trump would have to be endorsed in the House, a near-certainty given that chamber is under the Democrats’ control.
Congress’s consideration of revoking Trump’s power to waive sanctions, or dictating the terms of what sanctions may be imposed, reflects the worsening distrust in his foreign policy moves.
Already, both the Senate and House versions of next year’s defense authorization bill block Turkey from procuring the F-35. Shaheen and Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) also wrote an amendment explicitly stating that Trump should impose sanctions on Turkey for accepting Russia’s S-400 antimissile system.
“We want to make clear . . . sanctions apply,” Lankford said. “If another country wants to go out and buy Russian systems, they’ll have the same response from the United States.”
Yet most senators acknowledge there are limitations, arguing that while the United States must not be seen as showing leniency to Ankara, Turkey’s participation in NATO remains important.
“I think the best thing to do for Turkey is hook up our economies, not let the S-400 define the relationship,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). He said Congress should not impose sanctions until Turkey activates the weapons system. “We’re trying to avoid sanctions if we can.”
Graham’s recommendation mirrors the message that Republican senators received from the president last week. Instead of sanctions, Trump pushed the idea of a free-trade deal with Turkey.
Under the law, the president must implement at least five of 12 sanctions categories at his disposal, measures that include denying export licenses, loans and other banking transactions, and visas to the United States. The president has the power to waive those sanctions if he determines it is in the country’s national security interest, but the majority of senators are opposed to him using that authority.
“How do you get a president to follow the law when he doesn’t want to?” said the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.).
Risch said it would be premature to assume that Trump is not going to act. But with Congress on its August recess, some worry that he may not feel a sense of urgency to enforce the sanctions, weakening them as a threat to others who seek business with Russia.
The law mandates sanctions against any entity with “significant” relations with Russia’s defense industry or intelligence agencies, and is likely to cause more problems in the future.
India, with which the Trump administration has cultivated a stronger defense relationship, has signed a contract with Russia to buy the S-400, scheduled for delivery next year. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have also expressed interest in purchasing the system.
“Either it matters or it doesn’t,” Rubio said. “What country in the world would ever listen to us in the future if we allow [Turkey] to do this without facing consequences?”
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