U.S. Senate backs legislation to slap new sanctions on Russia, force Trump to ask for Congress' approval to ease them

WASHINGTON, June 14 (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday for new sanctions punishing Russia for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, and to force President Donald Trump to get Congress' approval before easing any existing sanctions.

The vote was 97 to two for the legislation, filed as an amendment to an Iran sanctions bill. It is intended to punish Russia over issues including alleged meddling in the election, annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region and support for the government of Syria in that country's six-year-long civil war.

The measure sets up a process for Congress to review changes in sanctions, puts into law actions previously established via presidential executive order, imposes new sanctions on Russians found guilty of human rights abuses or conducting cyber attacks.

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Key players in Trump-Russia connection allegations
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Key players in Trump-Russia connection allegations

Paul Manafort

Paul Manafort signed on as Donald Trump's campaign manager in March 2016. A longtime Republican strategist and beltway operative, Manafort had previously served as an adviser to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich -- a pro-Russia leader who was violently ousted in 2014. Manafort resigned from his campaign position in August 2016 amid questions over his lobbying history in Ukraine for an administration supportive of Russia. The former campaign manager reportedly remained in Trump's circle during the post-election transition period.

Michael Flynn

Gen. Michael Flynn was named President Trump's national security adviser in November of 2016. Flynn reportedly met and spoke with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December, at one point discussing sanctions. Flynn originally told Vice President Pence he did not discuss sanctions -- a point the Department of Justice said made the national security adviser subject to blackmail. Flynn resigned from his position in February.

Sergey Kislyak

Outgoing Russian ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak is the Russian official U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions -- communication Sessions denied during his Senate committee hearing testimony.

Roger Stone

Stone is a longtime Republican political consultant who served as a campaign adviser to Trump who continued to talk with the then-GOP candidate after stepping away from his adviser role. Stone claimed last year that he had knowledge of the planned WikiLeaks release of emails pertaining to Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. Stone recently admitted to speaking via direct message with "Guccifer 2.0" -- an online entity U.S. officials believe is tied to Russia. Stone says the correspondence was “completely innocuous.”

Jeff Sessions

Former U.S. senator Jeff Sessions from Alabama joined Trump's campaign as a foreign policy adviser in February 2016. Sessions was nominated to be U.S. attorney general by President Trump and was then confirmed by the Senate. Reports then emerged that Sessions had spoken twice with Sergey Kislyak while he was senator -- a fact that he left out of his Senate hearing testimony. Instead, he said in writing that he had not communicated with any Russian officials during the campaign season. Sessions defended himself saying he had spoken with Kislyak specifically in a senate capacity.

Russian President Vladimir Putin

The American intelligence community accused Putin in Jan. 2017 of ordering a campaign to undermine trust in the American electoral process, developing a clear preference for Trump as president. "We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia's goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump," the report read.

James Comey

Comey publicly confirmed in March an FBI inquiry into Russia's involvement in the 2016 election. “The F.B.I., as part of our counterintelligence effort, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 president election,” Comey stated.

Carter Page

Page worked for Merrill Lynch as an investment banker out of their Moscow office for three years before joining Trump's campaign as a foreign policy adviser. During his time with Merrill Lynch, Page advised transactions for two major Russian entities. Page has called Washington "hypocritical" for focusing on corruption and democratization in addressing U.S. relations with Russia. While Page is someone Trump camp has seemingly tried to distance itself from, Page recently said he has made frequent visits to Trump Tower.

J.D. Gordon

Before Gordon joined the Trump campaign as a national security adviser in March 2016, he served as a Pentagon spokesman from 2005 through 2009. Like others involved in Trump-Russia allegations, Gordon met with ambassador Kislyak in July at the Republican National Convention, but has since denied any wrongdoing in their conversation. He advocated for and worked to revise the RNC language on and position toward Ukraine relations, so it was more friendly toward Russia's dealings in the country.

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It was introduced amid an intense focus in the U.S. capital on relations with Russia, and investigations by the Department of Justice and congressional committees of whether Russia sought to influence the 2016 U.S. elections to help elect Trump, and whether Trump associates colluded with Moscow as it sought to influence the election.

Moscow denies any such activity, which Trump has dismissed as sour grapes by the Democrats he defeated.

The Iran bill, including the Russia sanctions amendment, was expected to pass the Senate on Thursday or later on Wednesday.

To take effect, the measure would also have to pass the House of Representatives and be signed into law by Trump. If Trump objected, some of its backers said they expected enough congressional support to override a veto.

"Today the Senate has finally confronted Russia for interfering in our elections. This bipartisan amendment is the sanctions regime that the Kremlin deserves for its actions," said Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a leader of the push for the legislation.

The only two "no" votes on the Russia bill were from Republican Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul. (Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Tom Brown)

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