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Thank leakers for newest Russia sanctions

Updated: 
August 5, 2017 - 12:05am

If you are inclined, as I am, to see the new congressional sanctions on Russia as a positive development, then take a moment to thank an anonymous national security state leaker.

The legislation President Donald Trump reluctantly signed on Wednesday is extraordinary in that it does not include a national security waiver. Until now, sanctions were largely left up to the discretion of the president. Former President Barack Obama used legislative waivers to lift sanctions on Iran after he completed the nuclear deal. And yet, despite heavy lobbying from the White House, Congress rebuffed Trump.

So it’s not surprising that Trump complained Wednesday that the law he was signing encroached on his ability to make foreign policy. Any president would have said that. The difference is that until now, Congress would have respected the president’s prerogatives.

There are a few reasons why Congress voted in veto-proof majorities to codify the kind of sanctions on Russia that Trump campaigned against. There are the Russians. They brazenly intervened in the 2016 elections: hacking Democrats, probing voting machines, ginning up fake news and then lying about it. There is also Trump himself, whose sycophantic praise for Vladimir Putin and failure to accept the conclusions of his intelligence agencies led many in Congress to worry he would let Moscow get away with it.

Then there are the leakers. The steady drumbeat of stories disclosing details of the FBI investigation into possible Trump World collusion with Russia; intercepted communications between Russian officials about contacts with Trump advisers; and the leaked conversations of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn with the Russian ambassador. All this boxed the president in on Russia. Trump compounded these problems by falsely denying contacts between his campaign and Russians and then firing FBI Director James Comey.

One senior Senate staffer who worked on the legislation told me this week that there was no doubt that the lurking questions around the Trump campaign and Russia spurred Republicans in particular to support a bill with no waiver.

It’s possible that nothing will come from the special counsel’s investigation or the various committees in Congress looking into the matter, but “it’s better to be safe than sorry,” this staffer said.

And while this is good for U.S. foreign policy, it sets a dangerous precedent. U.S. intelligence agencies are not supposed to interfere in our politics. But they clearly have. They have not only succeeded in creating the conditions under which Trump fired Flynn. Leaks forced Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself on Trump-Russia investigations. They also spurred acting attorney general to appoint a special counsel, Robert Mueller, to run the probe.

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