Some GOP defied Trump on Russia sanctions, but Alaskans did not

Oleg Deripaska at the 2011 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Photo by Sebastian Derungs/Creative Commons2.0

Congress almost passed a measure this week that would have forced the Trump administration to keep sanctions on companies partly owned by a Kremlin-linked Russian billionaire. The sanctions bill was seen in some quarters as a chance to stand up to President Trump and portray him as too cozy with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. If that’s what the opportunity was, no member of Alaska’s congressional delegation took it.

Oleg Deripaska is tight with Putin, and he controls one of the world’s largest aluminum companies, and two other firms. Or he used to.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin went to Capitol Hill this week to convince Republican senators that Deripaska had divested some of his ownership, so they should let the Trump administration lift sanctions on those three companies, or delist them.

“The only reasons why the companies were listed is because they meet certain ownership and control by Deripaska,” Mnuchin told reporters outside the closed-door meeting. “Otherwise they wouldn’t have been listed. And we put together an agreement that we think meets the requirements of the laws and the regulations to delist it.”

Democrats were having none of it. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, insisted Deripaska is still doing Putin’s bidding and hasn’t really given up control of the companies.

“Trump provides sanctions relief for a sham deal whereby this one thug transfers his shares to his personal foundation, a Trump Foundation-type group, his ex-wife and a sanctioned Russian bank,” Doggett said on the House floor.

Every Democrat present, in the House and Senate, voted for a measure to keep the sanctions.

In the Senate, 11 Republicans voted with Democrats. The effort fell three votes short of the 60 needed.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski said there were no good options.

“This is one where … I’ve gone back and forth because the fact of the matter is, we’re dealing with just a bad actor and I don’t think he has changed his stripes,” she said.

Murkowski said what persuaded her the administration should be allowed to lift the sanctions is that allies like the European Union want them lifted, too. They need the aluminum. Sanctions aren’t effective if other countries don’t adopt them, she said.

Sen. Dan Sullivan said he was torn, too.

“It was kind of a tough decision because I’ve been someone who’s very strong against Vladimir Putin,” he said.

Sullivan pointed out it was the professional staff at the Treasury Department, not just the political appointees, who determined the companies met the requirements for lifting sanctions. And Sullivan said Deripaska’s not off the hook.

“The sanctions remain on the oligarch. I mean the guy himself,” Sullivan said. “This is just the company.”

In the House, the legislation to keep the sanctions in place passed overwhelmingly, with even most Republicans voting for it.

Alaska Congressman Don Young was one of only 53 to vote no.

Young’s office, in a written statement, gave reasons similar to the senators.’ His statement also said the Russian companies made big changes to get off the sanctions list, agreeing to things like regular audits and new boards of directors. Why, the statement asks, would anybody comply with U.S. sanctions demands if Congress won’t let a president lift them when the demands are met?

The vote in the House Thursday was symbolic because the legislation effectively died in the Senate on Wednesday.