U.S. Senator Joni Ernst and seven fellow Republicans asked President Donald Trump yesterday “to pursue a principled and tough-minded Russia policy.”
After voting to confirm Rex Tillerson as secretary of state a week ago, the senators might as well have asked Trump for rainbow unicorns.
The senators’ letter to the president, enclosed in full below, argued that the U.S. “must never pursue cooperation with Russia at the expense of our fundamental interests of defending our allies and promoting our values.” Ernst and her colleagues also called on the Trump administration to:
• “unequivocally condemn – and take proactive steps to stem – the continued Russian aggression in Ukraine.”
• “maintain the current U.S. sanctions regime against Russia and Russian entities – and to impose new sanctions as necessary and merited by Russian behavior –unless Ukraine’s control over Crimea is restored, Russia fully respects the Minsk agreements, and ceases all efforts to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty.”
• “not enter into any military or diplomatic agreement with Russia regarding Syria’s future until Moscow halts its military operations that have caused immense damage and human suffering and ceases support for the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad.”
• “recognize and counter the active cyber and information warfare Russia is conducting against the United States and Western democracies, including attempted interference in our democratic elections process.”
• “relay to Moscow that the values of democracy, human rights, transparency, and accountability are central to U.S. foreign policy, that these values are non-negotiable, and that the United States will continue to advance these values globally, including with regard to Russia.”
What a farce.
Trump selected multiple senior campaign staffers and advisers with ties to the Kremlin.
Trump’s representatives took almost no interest in the Republican Party platform, except to weaken language related to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.
Soon after Ernst stood on the Republican National Convention stage, promising Americans Trump would keep us safe, the GOP nominee said he would look at lifting sanctions against Russia, and suggested that the U.S. might not defend our NATO allies against Russian aggression.
After the election, Trump picked a national security adviser who has worked with Russia’s propaganda television network RT and sat next to President Vladimir Putin at a Moscow banquet.
Trump consistently downplayed reports about Russian interference in the U.S. election.
Now nine sources confirm Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, discussed U.S. sanctions in talks with the Russian ambassador in December. Many people in the intelligence community believe Flynn gave Russia “unambiguous and highly inappropriate” signals the new administration would reconsider sanctions, which is why Putin did not retaliate after President Barack Obama expelled some Russian operatives. (Trump praised “very smart” Putin for his restraint.)
Although the national security adviser is not subject to Senate confirmation, Ernst and her Republican colleagues had one big opportunity to show Trump they expected him to stand up to Russia: reject his choice for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson.
The longtime ExxonMobil CEO has done extensive business in Russia, receiving a high state honor from Putin in 2013.
The following year, Tillerson opposed U.S. sanctions against Russia for annexing the Crimea region of Ukraine. In addition,
Tillerson attended the 2014 World Petroleum Conference in Moscow, appearing on stage with Igor Sechin, a close ally and confidant of Putin who heads the state-controlled energy company Rosneft. Sechin was one of the high-level Russian officials sanctioned in April of 2014 in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.
The U.S. government, the Wall Street Journal reported at the time, discouraged business leaders from attending, with a spokesperson for the National Security Council telling the Journal they didn’t think it was “appropriate to return to ‘business as usual’ in Russia.”
Here’s some background on Sechin, a truly nasty piece of work.
Tillerson also served as a longtime director of his oil company’s Russian subsidiary.
In short, appointing Tillerson as his top foreign policy official was the strongest possible signal Trump could send that the U.S. would not pursue a “tough Russia policy.”
Yet Ernst and every other Republican senator who signed yesterday’s pointless letter fell in line behind Tillerson.
Now they try to generate favorable media coverage by issuing public demands to the White House.
Trump doesn’t understand basic facts about U.S.-Russian relations. He will rely on people like Flynn and Tillerson to tell him what to do.
GOP senators blew their chance to be a check on his administration’s pro-Russian agenda. Ernst should drop the pretense.
P.S.- Americans still have no idea how much money Trump-associated businesses owe to Russian corporate entities. I spent years of my life closely watching Putin use Russian companies, along with other methods, to destroy his country’s most influential private media. There could hardly be a bigger threat to national security than the Kremlin having financial leverage over the Trump empire. If Ernst wants to do something useful, she could start pressuring the White House to release Trump’s tax returns and other relevant business documents.
FEBRUARY 16 UPDATE: Literally shaking my head at the senator’s comments in this Radio Iowa report by Dar Danielson.
“I am concerned about the impacts that any conversations that General Flynn had with folks in Russia really show maybe not quite as aggressive as I would like to see on Russia,” Ernst says. […]
She says we can’t forget that “Russia is not our friend.” “We need to take a step back, we need to evaluate what has been done. We need to be sure that we are showing a position of strength when it comes to Russia,” according to Ernst. ” So again, I think that his resignation is absolutely appropriate and we’ll see what shakes out in the coming weeks.” Ernst says it is up to the intelligence committee to determine what type of review there needs to be into Flynn’s actions.
“I do believe that we need to know the full details of what has transpired, so whether that is a Senate committee looking at it or otherwise, I do defer to the intel committee. I do want to know exactly what happened and what kind of position that puts us in as the United States,” Ernst says. Ernst says the senators who sent the letter to the president would like to follow up on it.
Senator, you vouched for Trump at the Republican National Convention in July, when it was already clear the nominee was surrounding himself with advisers who have close ties to Russia. If you want Americans to remember that “Russia is not our friend,” why did you vote to make a recipient of Russia’s Order of Friendship our secretary of state? Julia Ioffe discussed here why Tillerson is “so very dependent” on having a good relationship with Putin, as well as the secretary of state’s longstanding ties to “Putin’s former KGB buddy” Sechin.
February 9 press release:
Ernst Joins Group of Senators in Urging Administration to Pursue a Tough Russia Policy
Washington – U.S. Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) along with Senators Jim Inhofe (R-OK), Todd Young (R-IN), Rob Portman (R-OH), Mike Rounds (R-SD), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) today sent a letter to President Trump urging his Administration to pursue a principled and tough-minded Russia policy, highlighting Russia’s aggressive behavior in Ukraine, Syria, and cyberspace.
The letter reads in full:
Dear Mr. President:
We write to ask you to pursue a results-oriented, but tough-minded and principled policy toward the Russian Federation. Russia’s cooperation is desirable, and in some cases essential, to global initiatives such as nuclear arms control, counter-terrorism, drug trafficking, or promoting global health. We should maintain active and ongoing dialogue with Russia on these and others areas of mutual interests, as every U.S. President has done since the end of the Cold War. However, while we should seek common ground with Russia in the areas of mutual interest, we must never pursue cooperation with Russia at the expense of our fundamental interests of defending our allies and promoting our values.
The United States should unequivocally condemn – and take proactive steps to stem – the continued Russian aggression in Ukraine. Russia has invaded Ukraine and illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula, in violation of international law, and has directly abetted the so-called “separatist rebels” in eastern Ukraine. Since 2014, over 10,000 Ukrainians have died in this tragic conflict, and there are as many as 1.5 million internally displaced persons because of the violence. The most recent escalation of fighting along the “line of contact” in eastern Ukraine should serve as a reminder of Russia’s nefarious intentions.
The Administration should maintain the current U.S. sanctions regime against Russia and Russian entities – and to impose new sanctions as necessary and merited by Russian behavior –unless Ukraine’s control over Crimea is restored, Russia fully respects the Minsk agreements, and ceases all efforts to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty. Furthermore, we ask you to expedite the provision of defensive lethal weapons to Ukraine, and we were encouraged that Secretary of State Tillerson supported this position during his confirmation hearing.
The United States should not enter into any military or diplomatic agreement with Russia regarding Syria’s future until Moscow halts its military operations that have caused immense damage and human suffering and ceases support for the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad. It is plainly evident that despite Russian claims to the contrary, Moscow’s main goal is not the defeat of the Islamic State, but the preservation of the Assad regime at any cost. According to the Pentagon’s spokesman, as of February 3, 2016, only 10 percent of Russian airstrikes were against Islamic State targets. However, according to an estimate released by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on December 31, 2016, at least 4,700 civilians died in Syria due to Russian shelling, including the targeting of schools and hospitals. The U.S. must condemn these Russian atrocities and condition any future negotiations regarding Syria’s future on Russian compliance with international norms and basic human rights.
Furthermore, we must recognize and counter the active cyber and information warfare Russia is conducting against the United States and Western democracies, including attempted interference in our democratic elections process. According to the 2016 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community: “Russian cyber operations are likely to target US interests to support several strategic objectives: intelligence gathering to support Russian decision-making in the Ukraine and Syrian crises, influence operations to support military and political objectives, and continuing preparation of the cyber environment for future contingencies.” The United States must have a firm response to this belligerent behavior from Moscow, which should include diplomatic actions, economic consequences, as well as a strengthened military posture in Europe.
Most importantly, we urge you to relay to Moscow that the values of democracy, human rights, transparency, and accountability are central to U.S. foreign policy, that these values are non-negotiable, and that the United States will continue to advance these values globally, including with regard to Russia. President Putin must know that the United States remains a beacon of hope and democracy around the world, and will stand up for what is right.
Mr. President, we look forward to your reply and maintaining an open, ongoing, and respectful dialogue with you regarding U.S.-Russia relations.