Trump administration to hit Russia with new sanctions for Skripal poisoning


WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is hitting Russia with new sanctions punishing President Vladimir Putin's government for using a chemical weapon against an ex-spy in Britain, U.S. officials told NBC News Wednesday.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has signed off on a determination that Russia violated international law by poisoning Sergei Skripal and his daughter in March, the officials said. Although the U.S. joined European countries in publicly blaming Moscow within days of the attack, Trump's administration had never issued the formal determination that triggers automatic sanctions under a decades-old U.S. law on chemical weapons.

The decision could bolster President Donald Trump's claim that despite the noise of the Mueller probe that he calls a "witch hunt," his administration has been tough on Moscow in practice and has hit hard when needed.

But Trump had to be nudged by Congress into unleashing the penalties after blowing more than a month past a statutory deadline. The government had two months after a formal congressional request in March for Trump to determine whether or not Russia had violated international law. After the deadline came and went with no response, Trump was called out in late July by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, NBC News first reported. 

24 PHOTOS
The case of Sergei Skripal's poisoning
See Gallery
The case of Sergei Skripal's poisoning
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 08: Forensic police officers wearing hazmat suits examine a vehicle believed to belong to Sergei Skripal on March 8, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Police investigations continue into the use of a nerve agent to poison Sergei Skripal, who was found ill in a Salisbury park with his daughter on March 4. Both Sergei Skripal and his daughter remain in critical condition in hospital. Sergei Skripal was granted refuge in the UK following a spy swap between the US and Russia in 2010. (Photo by Rufus Cox/Getty Images)
Chairs are seen on tables inside the Mill pub which former Russian inteligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia visited before they were found poisoned on a bench nearby in Salisbury, Britain, March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 06: Witness Freya Church, 27, walks with a policeman near a forensic tent where Sergei Skripal, 66 and his duaghter Yulia Skripal, in her 30s, were found unconscious in Salisbury town centre two days previously on March 6, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Sergei Skripal who was granted refuge in the UK following a 'spy swap' between the US and Russia in 2010 and his daughter remain critically ill after being exposed to an 'unknown substance'. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Londoners pass-by the London newspaper Evening Standard's latest headline about ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal's suspected poisoning by Russia in southern England, on 6th March 2018, in the capital's financial district, the City of London, England. As both Skripal and a woman believed to be his daughter Ylulia remain in a critical condition at Salisbury hospital where he was taken ill on Sunday 4th, British Counter Terrorism Police have taken over the investigation from the local Wiltshire force. The British press have been quick in blaming President Putin's involvement just weeks before his Presidential re-election. (Photo by Richard Baker In Pictures via getty Images)
Former Russian military intelligence colonel Sergei Skripal attends a hearing at the Moscow District Military Court in Moscow on August 9, 2006. Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent whose mysterious collapse in England sparked concerns of a possible poisoning by Moscow, has been living in Britain since a high-profile spy swap in 2010. Police were probing his exposure to an unknown substance, which left him unconscious on a bench in the city of Salisbury and saw media draw parallels to the case of Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-spy who died of radioactive polonium poisoning in 2006. / AFP PHOTO / Kommersant Photo / Yuri SENATOROV / Russia OUT (Photo credit should read YURI SENATOROV/AFP/Getty Images)
A forensics tent covers the bench, where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found slumped, in a cordoned off area in the centre of Salisbury, Britain, March 7, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville
Police officers seal off the road on which Russian Sergei Skripal and his daughter have been staying in Salisbury, Britain, March 7, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville
Police officers stand on duty outside a restaurant which has been secured as part of the investigation into the poisoning of former Russian inteligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, Britain March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 07: Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley (R) and Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies give a statement on March 7, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Sergei Skripal, who was granted refuge in the UK following a 'spy swap' between the US and Russia in 2010, and his daughter remain critically ill after being exposed to an 'unknown substance'. A police officer who was the first to attend the scene is now also in a serious condition in hospital. Police are treating the suspected poisoning as attempted murder by nerve agent. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
Police officers stand on duty outside a pub which has been secured as part of the investigation into the poisoning of former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, Britain March 12, 2018. REUTERS/ Henry Nicholls
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 07: Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley leaves after giving a statement on March 7, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Sergei Skripal, who was granted refuge in the UK following a 'spy swap' between the US and Russia in 2010, and his daughter remain critically ill after being exposed to an 'unknown substance'. A police officer who was the first to attend the scene is now also in a serious condition in hospital. Police are treating the suspected poisoning as attempted murder by nerve agent. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 08: Forensic police officers wearing hazmat suits examine a vehicle believed to belong to Sergei Skripal on March 8, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Police investigations continue into the use of a nerve agent to poison Sergei Skripal, who was found ill in a Salisbury park with his daughter on March 4. Both Sergei Skripal and his daughter remain in critical condition in hospital. Sergei Skripal was granted refuge in the UK following a spy swap between the US and Russia in 2010. (Photo by Rufus Cox/Getty Images)
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 07: Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley (R) and Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies give a statement on March 7, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Sergei Skripal, who was granted refuge in the UK following a 'spy swap' between the US and Russia in 2010, and his daughter remain critically ill after being exposed to an 'unknown substance'. A police officer who was the first to attend the scene is now also in a serious condition in hospital. Police are treating the suspected poisoning as attempted murder by nerve agent. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
Police officers stand on duty outside a pub which has been secured as part of the investigation into the poisoning of former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, Britain March 12, 2018. REUTERS/ Henry Nicholls
Londoners pass-by the London newspaper Evening Standard's latest headline about ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal's suspected poisoning by Russia in southern England, on 6th March 2018, in the capital's financial district, the City of London, England. As both Skripal and a woman believed to be his daughter Ylulia remain in a critical condition at Salisbury hospital where he was taken ill on Sunday 4th, British Counter Terrorism Police have taken over the investigation from the local Wiltshire force. The British press have been quick in blaming President Putin's involvement just weeks before his Presidential re-election. (Photo by Richard Baker In Pictures via getty Images)
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 07: A police tent is seen behind a cordon outside The Maltings shopping centre where a man and a woman were found critically ill on a bench on March 4 and taken to hospital sparking a major incident, on March 7, 2018 in Wiltshire, England. Sergei Skripal, who was granted refuge in the UK following a 'spy swap' between the US and Russia in 2010, and his daughter remain critically ill after being exposed to an 'unknown substance'. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
Former Russian military intelligence colonel Sergei Skripal attends a hearing at the Moscow District Military Court in Moscow on August 9, 2006. Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent whose mysterious collapse in England sparked concerns of a possible poisoning by Moscow, has been living in Britain since a high-profile spy swap in 2010. Police were probing his exposure to an unknown substance, which left him unconscious on a bench in the city of Salisbury and saw media draw parallels to the case of Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-spy who died of radioactive polonium poisoning in 2006. / AFP PHOTO / Kommersant Photo / Yuri SENATOROV / Russia OUT (Photo credit should read YURI SENATOROV/AFP/Getty Images)
A tent covers the park bench where former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found after they were poisoned, in Salisbury, Britain March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
A tent covers the park bench where former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found after they were poisoned, in Salisbury, Britain March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
A police officer stands at a cordon around the bench where former Russian inteligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found after they were poisoned, in Salisbury, Britain March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Britain's Home Secretary Amber Rudd, accompanied by Temporary Chief Constable Kier Pritchard, visits the scene where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found after having been poisoned by a nerve agent in Salisbury, Britain, March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
A police officer stands on duty outside a restaurant which has been secured as part of the investigation into the poisoning of former Russian inteligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Police officers work at a supermarket near the bench where former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found poisoned, in Salisbury, Britain, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - MARCH 6, 2018: Pictured in this file image dated August 9, 2006, is retired colonel Sergei Skripal during a hearing at the Moscow District Court. File image/Press Office of Moscow District Military Court/TASS (Photo by TASS\TASS via Getty Images)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

It was a rare instance of friendly fire by a fellow Republican, as members of Trump's party grew increasingly frustrated with his handling of Russia following his Helsinki summit with Putin. Royce, who faulted Trump for failing to make use of existing sanctions authorities on Russia, had urged Trump to comply by midday Wednesday.

The sanctions are structured in two tranches, laid out in a 1991 law known as the Chemical and Biological Weapons and Warfare Elimination Act. An initial, immediate round limits exports and financing but may have limited impact, because it largely overlaps with other restrictions already in place, such as on selling arms to Russia.

The biggest impact from the initial sanctions is expected to come from a ban on granting licenses to export sensitive national security goods to Russia, which in the past have included items like electronic devices and components, along with test and calibration equipment for avionics. Prior to the sanctions, such exports were allowed on a case-by-case basis. 

That new prohibition could cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in future exports to Russia, said a senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sanctions before an official announcement.

A second, more painful round kicks in three months later unless Russia provides "reliable assurances" it won't use chemical weapons in the future and agrees to "on-site inspections" by the U.N. — conditions unlikely to be met. The second round of sanctions could include downgrading diplomatic relations, suspending state airline Aeroflot's ability to fly to the U.S, and cutting off nearly all exports and imports.

The chemical weapons law was most recently used in March when the Trump administration determined North Korea had used the chemical agent VX to kill leader Kim Jong Un's half-brother in a Malaysia airport. The sanctions on Russia will take effect in 15 days, when it will be published in the Federal Register.

The sanctions come as Trump's national security team is working to counter the persistent perception that the president is unwilling to challenge Putin or acknowledge the egregiousness of Moscow's actions. Trump has insisted repeatedly that "no one has been tougher," but Russia hawks in both parties remain alarmed by his continual downplaying of the threat to the U.S. and his eagerness for a positive relationship with the Russian leader.

Last week, just hours after Trump's top national security officials warned the public of "pervasive" attempts to interfere in the 2018 election, the president said he had a "great meeting with Putin" in Helsinki and again referred to "the Russian hoax." Still, his administration has slapped sanctions on Russian oligarchs and officials, including for election-meddling and human rights, and has pushed back on the Kremlin in other ways in Syria and Ukraine.

Skripal, a former Russian military officer convicted of spying for the U.K., was poisoned with his daughter in March in Salisbury with the nerve agent Novichok, developed in the former Soviet Union. Two additional people were later exposed to the chemical in an incident that police believe is linked. One of them died. Moscow has adamantly denied involvement. 

Shortly after the Skripal poisoning, the United States joined the U.K., Germany and France in saying that it was "highly likely that Russia was responsible" for the Skripal attack. Trump's administration also kicked out dozens of Russian diplomats that it said were actually spies in an action intended to punish Moscow for its "use of a military-grade chemical weapon on the soil of the United Kingdom."

There was no immediate response to the new sanctions from Russia's Embassy in Washington.

Although Trump is largely allowing the sanctions to move forward, the administration is using waivers to exempt a few specific activities that would otherwise be banned, officials said. That includes space flight – where U.S. and Russia cooperate closely and American astronauts could run into problems absent a waiver.

Russian-based entities that are wholly owned subsidiaries of U.S. companies will also be exempted, so as not to unduly punish American businesses. U.S. foreign assistance for Russia - already extremely limited – may still be allowed because it goes not to the Russian government but to non-governmental groups, such as those that support human rights and the rule of law, officials said.

Read Full Story