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Trump Administration Made Secret Efforts To Ease Russia Sanctions


Almost as soon as President Trump took office, his top aides told the State Department to develop proposals to lift penalties on Russia that had been imposed by the Obama administration. That's according to Michael Isikoff, who is chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News. Those penalties were imposed for Russia's intervention in Ukraine and from meddling in the 2016 election. Michael Isikoff, welcome back to the program.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: You write about panicky calls from people in government assigned to roll back the Russia sanctions. Who was calling whom and when?

ISIKOFF: Well, we know that the calls went to Dan Fried, who is a veteran State Department diplomat and was at the time the U.S. coordinator for sanctions policy. And he served through the first month of the Trump administration. And he had helped develop the sanctions on Russia after its intervention in Ukraine and also helped with the election sanctions imposed at the end of December.

And he said in those first few weeks of the Trump administration, he gets these phone calls from officials who have been assigned to work on a sanctions relief package. They are very worried. And they say at one point to him, according to Fried, my God, can't you stop this?

SIEGEL: And the measures in question, the penalties that they were ordered to develop a plan to lift, what were they again?

ISIKOFF: Well, the key ones are economic sanctions. There are Russian banks, Russian businesses that have been sanctioned, high-level Russian officials who have been sanctioned. They're basically blacklisted. That means they can't do business in the United States. If they have bank accounts that the United States can get access to, they could be frozen.

This was done in coordination with the European Union. And that's a big issue on this because people like Fried and other people at the State Department say if the sanctions were to be lifted, it would be a huge breach of trust with the Europeans. They invested with the United States in imposing these sanctions on Russia. And if the United States were to unilaterally lift them, they'd be out there hanging.

SIEGEL: You're writing about something that people in the Trump administration wanted to happen, but it didn't happen. Why not?

ISIKOFF: Well, if you look at the timing here, this was all in those first couple of weeks. And, in fact, one of the things that Dan Fried and one of his former colleagues in the Obama administration - Tom Malinowski, who was assistant secretary for human rights - did is they went to Capitol Hill and got congressional leaders who are - feel very strongly about this issue - Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John McCain, Republican Lindsey Graham - to co-sponsor legislation to codify the sanctions. And that basically would make it very difficult for the Trump administration to lift them.

That happened on February 7, when that legislation was introduced. And then six days later, February 13, Michael Flynn, the White House national security adviser, is forced to resign over his conversations with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, about sanctions which he misrepresented to Vice President Pence. So this all became a politically toxic issue for the Trump White House, and it kind of forced them to pull back a bit.

SIEGEL: Has the White House responded to your story?

ISIKOFF: Well, what they told me yesterday when I spoke to them about it is that sanctions policy is still under review, not just for Russia but for all countries. And this is part of a standard policy review that they will be doing throughout the world basically.

SIEGEL: Investigative reporter Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News. Thanks for talking with us again.

ISIKOFF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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