Tying Trump's Hands On Russian Sanctions, AKA "You Shall Not Pass!"

By Xander Snyder

Donald Trump is getting a quick lesson in the limitations of his office. As much as he’d like to will his policy proposals into existence, he is learning -- as have all other presidents before him - how constrained his new position of power actually is.

The first six months of Donald Trump’s presidency have been a showcase of checks and balances in action. The courts vetoed his travel ban, the political composition of Congress made his healthcare bill so difficult to pass that Congress has resorted to a “throw it and see if it sticks” approach to problem solving. It’s hard to imagine such a process resulting in a bill that attracts enough political capital to pass. (Editor's note: the GOP failed to pass both a repeal-and-replace and a repeal-without-replace on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively.)

Just recently, the House of Representatives voted 419-3 to pass an updated set of sanctions on Russia that also severely limit Donald Trump’s control over them. Much of the bill is filled with amendments to prior sanctions -- for example those imposed on Russia in 2014 as a result of its seizure of Crimea -- that curb his power by changing one word. For example, one of the 2014 Ukraine sanctions says that the president “may” choose to implement certain sanctions, or he may choose not to. The new language says that the president “shall.” Congress is removing Trump’s ability to decide who or what companies must face sanctions.

The new bill also limits the President’s ability to give waivers or terminate sanctions. That now requires the President submit a request to Congress, providing evidence that the sanctioned entity has stopped violating sanctions or is making a concerted effort to do so. There are exceptions to these -- for example, the President could claim that sanctions need to be ended for national security purposes. The President has seen his power diminish, while Congress still provided carve-outs. It’s always hard to tell what sort of issues these exemptions can create down the road in the courts.

Reconsider: if you’re inclined to see Trump’s presidency as a series of either “wins” or “losses,” depending on what he’s able to accomplish, try instead to observe the system he’s operating in and the degree of maneuverability he actually has, rhetoric and tweeting aside. This doesn’t mean that checks and balances will always remain effective, but focusing on them will let us better evaluate whether they are currently accomplishing their goal: slowing down the government and preventing it from changing the government’s relationship with society too quickly (editor's addition: "and without sufficiently broad support").

The next episode of Reconsider will also discuss checks and balances in the context of the administration’s recent policy attempts. Be sure to check it out on the podcasts page.

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Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.