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Dems unveil slate of measures to ratchet up pressure on Russia

The Hill logo The Hill 7/19/2018 Mike Lillis
Steny Hoyer wearing a suit and tie © Provided by The Hill

Leading House Democrats on Thursday introduced a slate of proposals designed to thwart Russian election meddling and other acts of aggression aimed at the United States and its allies.

The legislation, an omnibus of nearly 20 bills aimed at subduing Russian hostility around the globe, comes just days after President Trump stunned Washington by siding with Russian President Vladimir Putin over his own intelligence agencies during a summit in Helsinki, Finland.

The new package, while having little chance of being considered under the Republican-controlled House, is designed to put pressure on GOP leaders to take some action to rein in Putin, who has rattled western leaders with Russia's annexation of Crimea; the ongoing effort to destabilize Ukraine; continued support for the Assad regime in Syria; and Moscow's interference in the 2016 elections, among other actions.

Democrats have long been critical of Trump's reluctance to challenge Moscow on those issues. And after his widely panned joint press conference with Putin on Monday, Democrats are hoping to amplify the message that if Trump won't confront Putin, Congress must.

"This bipartisan, comprehensive legislation will do what President Trump has repeatedly failed to do: hold Russia accountable, strengthen our election security and bolster our alliances," said House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), who put the package together.

"The American people expect us to adopt a bipartisan and unambiguous strategy to counter Russia's destabilizing activity."

Trump ignited a firestorm after Monday's closed-door meeting with Putin in Helsinki, when he suggested he trusted Putin's claim that Russia did not meddle in the 2016 elections.

The denial runs directly counter to the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community, which concluded not only that Russian operatives sought to meddle in the election, but they did so to give Trump an edge over his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Trump has given a series of competing answers this week on his views about Russia's election meddling.

He attempted to walk-back his Helsinki comments on Tuesday, saying he simply misspoke. But he prompted further backlash on Wednesday by answering in the negative when asked if Russia still posed a threat to elections.

"President Trump does not seem to know where he stands," Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, lamented Thursday.

"If we do not take any action, the American people may not trust the outcome of the next election."

The new legislation - dubbed the Secure America from Russian Interference Act - includes a host of proposals designed to pressure Moscow to cease its hostile actions towards other countries.

It features bills to disavow Russia's annexation of Crimea; monitor Putin's financial accounts; bolster transparency surrounding online political ads; and impose new sanctions on both Russian individuals and institutions in response to attacks on the Ukraine and Moscow's allegedly poisoning of four people in Britain.

The package also includes a proposal, sponsored by Rep. Maxine Waters (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Financial Services Committee, preventing Trump from waiving sanctions on technology exports that would help Russian oil companies drill in the Russian Arctic shelf, the Black Sea and Siberia.

"It is clear that the president should not have this authority," Waters said.

Some of the individual bills already have bipartisan support. Two Republicans - Reps. Walter Jones (N.C.) and Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) - have endorsed the entire package.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who was critical of Trump's comments in Helsinki, said this week that he's open to new sanctions on Russia in the wake of the Putin summit. But the idea has not been widely popular among the president's allies on Capitol Hill - particularly from the Republicans' conservative wing - and GOP leaders have shown little appetite for considering the Democrats' reform ideas.

Indeed, just before Hoyer unveiled the Russia package on Thursday, House Republicans blocked an amendment, offered by Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), to add $380 million to funding for election security grants.

"It seems that Putin is Trump's puppeteer, and that House Republicans have decided to join the charade," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said after the vote.

The Democrats are also raising alarms over Russian claims, made through an ambassador Wednesday, that Trump and Putin had solidified several "verbal agreements" during Monday's closed-door meeting, and that Moscow is in the process of implementing those unnamed pacts.

"We have no idea what agreements, if any, were reached," said Nadler. "To hear from the Russians now that there were agreements reached, and they won't tell us what those agreements were, is beyond imagination."

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