Former official: Trump seemed prepared to lift Russia sanctions 'in exchange for absolutely nothing'

The Trump administration reportedly looked into lifting US sanctions on Russia just days after the new president’s inauguration, and one former official at the State Department said that if those efforts were successful, it would have given the Russians “exactly what they wanted in exchange for absolutely nothing.”

Yahoo and NBC News reported on Thursday that State Department officials in January scrambled to push back on orders from the Trump administration to begin looking into lifting sanctions on Russia.

One of those officials, Tom Malinowski — who stepped down as former President Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of state for human rights on January 19 — corroborated those reports in an interview on Friday.

“I heard after stepping down that, unsurprisingly, the White House was beginning to consider drafting the actual substance of a deal with the Russians,” Malinowski told Business Insider. “That doesn’t mean any decisions had been made, but as you would expect for a president who campaigned on getting rid of impediments to chummy US-Russia relations, his administration immediately started charting ways forward to achieving that.”

But despite President Donald Trump’s insistence on making the best deals, in this case it seems the US wouldn’t have gotten much in return.

Malinowski and Daniel Fried, who served as the chief US coordinator for sanctions policy until he retired in late February, had to lobby Congress to halt the development of the sanctions-lifting package after government officials began ringing “alarm bells about possible concessions being made” to Russia, Malinowski said.

Fried told Yahoo News that US government officials called him in a panic after receiving the White House’s request.

“Please, my God, can’t you stop this?” Fried recalled them asking.

The revelation that Trump prioritised a review of the sanctions during his first week in office comes as the FBI scrutinizes his campaign’s contacts with Moscow. There’s been speculation about whether any collusion occurred that involved a promise to lift sanctions in exchange for Russia’s meddling in the US presidential election, which some argue may have helped Trump win.

It also comes one week after The Washington Post reported that Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December and proposed setting up a secret backchannel line of communication to Moscow using Russian facilities.

Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was also at the meeting. He had reportedly assured Kislyak in at least one phone call during the transition period that the Trump administration would review the sanctions imposed by Obama as punishment for Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and hacking campaign in 2016.

Malinowski said on Friday that he was shocked to hear that the administration was considering “giving the Russians exactly what they wanted in exchange for absolutely nothing,” echoing Fried’s earlier claim on MSNBC that the administration seemed prepared to rescind sanctions “in exchange for, well, nothing,”

Malinowski noted that, during the campaign, he and his former colleagues found Trump’s comments “bizarre because there are obviously not a lot of votes to be gained by campaigning on a pro-Putin platform. So we didn’t understand where that was coming from.”

But he noted that he was not too surprised when he learned that Trump had explored lifting the sanctions so early on: “The one thing Trump has been consistent about for the last year is his strange attraction to Putin,” Malinowski said. “One expects new presidents to move rather quickly on the things that are most important to them.”

Upon hearing from the former diplomats, Russia hawks like Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin and Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham acted swiftly to halt Trump’s efforts.

The senators introduced the Russia Sanctions Review Act on February 8, which would give Congress veto power over any sanctions-lifting package affecting Russia enacted by the White House. Republican Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said he will allow the bill to come to a vote if US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson does not make progress soon on improving relations with Russia in Syria.

The White House did not immediately respond to request for comment from Business Insider. But a senior White House official told Yahoo that the administration has been “reviewing all the sanctions — and this is not exclusive to Russia.” They added that they are waiting to see if Russia lives up to its commitment to help end the war in Ukraine.

“All the sanctions regimes have mechanisms built in to alleviate them,” the official said. “It’s been our hope that the Russians would take advantage of that.”

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