'People don't trust the president on Russia': Senators grill Treasury Secretary Mnuchin on sanctions

Key Points
  • Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin fielded questions about Russian sanctions at an FSOC hearing for the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday.
  • The White House decided to hold off on imposing sanctions on certain Russian entities, defying a deadline as understood by many Democrats.
  • Mnuchin also gave his testimony on interest rates, the debt ceiling, and the economy.
'People don't trust the president on Russia': Senators grill treasury secretary Mnuchin on sanctions

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin fielded heated questions in a Senate hearing on Tuesday about the White House's decision not to immediately impose new bipartisan sanctions on Russia.

Mnuchin was testifying before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee during the annual oversight hearing of the Financial Stability Oversight Council. He was expected to offer remarks on U.S. interest rates, the debt ceiling and the economy, among other issues.

But numerous Democrats also brought up questions about the White House's decision Monday night not to apply sanctions in accordance with a law passed in August 2017. The sanctions, Democrats said, were supposed to be imposed by Monday on many entities conducting business with Russia's defense and intelligence sectors.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, first cited CIA Director Mike Pompeo — who said on Monday that he had seen no "significant decrease" in Russian activity relating to election interference — before turning to the sanctions themselves.

"How can sanctions punish Russian interference in Ukraine and in American elections, and deter future elections, if these sanctions continue to sit on the shelf, unused by the president?"

Mnuchin responded that "a substantial amount of work was done" on the documents submitted to Congress the night before, including an allegedly more detailed report that is currently classified. "Based upon that, we will be looking at taking appropriate action," he said.

Brown interrupted Mnuchin to contend that "there is a lot of belief on both sides of the aisle — I hear senators talking privately about this — that this Congress and the American people don't trust the president on Russia, his closeness to Putin, all those things."

"Your delay on this, your slow walk, this just enforces that," Brown said.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., kept the pressure on Mnuchin, suggesting that he may not believe the conclusions of multiple intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the presidential election.

"If you don't believe this is true, then maybe that goes to your views on sanctions policy," Menendez said.

"Senator, I didn't say I didn't believe it was true," Mnuchin responded.

In addition to sanctions, the law also required the administration to list the "oligarchs" close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The list provided, however, was little more than a stripped-down copy of Forbes' most recent rankings for the top 200 wealthiest Russian businessmen, the Treasury Department confirmed to Buzzfeed on Tuesday.

In a statement, a State Department spokesman said that "if the law is working, sanctions on specific entities or individuals will not need to be imposed because the legislation is, in fact, serving as a deterrent."

Mnuchin echoed this argument after the hearing. "The bill itself is a deterrent," he said, though "we will likely be looking at additional sanctions, which we always do."

President Donald Trump had expressed opposition to the sanctions bill, which passed both houses of Congress in July with overwhelming support. The legislation, called the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, passed the House in a 419-3 vote. The Senate quickly followed with a 98-2 vote in the bill's favor.

Trump was circumspect on whether or not he would veto the sanctions once they crossed his desk, according to then-communications director Anthony Scaramucci. "He may veto the sanctions and negotiate an even tougher deal against the Russians," Scaramucci said at the time.

On Aug. 2, Trump signed the sanctions — which enjoyed effectively veto-proof support from Congress — into law. But the administration has dragged its feet on their implementation since then. The White House missed an Oct. 1 deadline to name the entities being sanctioned by more than three weeks, though it eventually complied.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, asked Mnuchin for information that caused the department to "waive or delay" the sanctions deadline.

"I think that's a very unfair characterization of what we've done," Mnuchin said. "It was our interpretation that we had to deliver the report to congress yesterday, which we did and we fulfilled."

"They're just not implemented yet," Schatz said. "That sounds like a delay."

But Sen. Bob Corker, at times a vocal critic of the Trump administration, agreed with their rollout of the sanctions. "In this particular case, I do think they've handled it in the way that it was supposed to be handled," he said.

"I do look forward, though, to sanctions being put in place for those violators."