WASHINGTON — The White House indicated on Sunday that President Trump would accept new legislation imposing sanctions on Russia and curtailing his authority to lift them on his own, a striking turnaround after a broad revolt in Congress by lawmakers of both parties who distrusted his friendly approach to Moscow and sought to tie his hands.
Congressional leaders said Saturday that they had reached agreement on legislation intended to punish Russia for its interference in last year’s presidential election and its aggression toward its neighbors, despite objections raised by the administration that it would inappropriately infringe on the president’s ability to direct foreign policy. The new White House press secretary said on Sunday that adjustments made to the bill were enough to satisfy the president’s concerns.
“The administration is supportive of being tough on Russia, particularly in putting these sanctions in place,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was promoted to press secretary on Friday, said on “This Week” on ABC News. “The original piece of legislation was poorly written, but we were able to work with the House and Senate, and the administration is happy with the ability to do that and make those changes that were necessary and we support where the legislation is now.”
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Still, there seemed to be confusion among the president’s advisers. Anthony Scaramucci, the new White House communications director, said on another show that the president had not made up his mind whether to sign the measure. “You’ve got to ask President Trump that,” he said on “State of the Union” on CNN. “It’s my second or third day on the job. My guess is he’s going to make that decision shortly.” He added, “He hasn’t made the decision yet to sign that bill one way or the other.”
That may reflect nothing more than Mr. Scaramucci’s still getting up to speed in his new role, as he suggested. Privately, White House officials said they saw no politically viable alternative to the president signing the bill and so Ms. Sanders seized on the changes made to lay the predicate.
In reality, while the changes made the measure somewhat more palatable to the White House, they mainly provided a face-saving way to back down from a confrontation it was sure to lose if the sanctions bill reached the floor of the House. The Senate passed the original version of the bill, 97 to 2, and Republicans and Democrats expected a similarly overwhelming, veto-proof majority in the House if it came to a vote.
Not only would a veto by Mr. Trump have presumably been overridden by Congress, but White House advisers conceded it would have been politically disastrous. While other presidents might also have resisted legislation taking away their power to have the final say on sanctions, for Mr. Trump such a stance would be untenable given investigations into whether his team colluded with Russia during the election.
Administration officials said that Mr. Trump supported the array of sanctions that have already been imposed on Russia over the last three years since its annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine. While he has talked of improving relations with Moscow, aides noted that he had done nothing in his first six months in office to lift the sanctions.
But aides prepared a plan in the early days of his administration to reverse some sanctions imposed by President Barack Obama in his final weeks in office in retaliation for Russia’s meddling in the election. The plan discussed by Mr. Trump’s aides was throttled after Republican congressional leaders publicly and privately warned against it.
The stand-down on the sanctions fight came at the start of a week in which the president’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr.; his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner; and his former campaign chairman, Paul J. Manafort, are all set to talk with congressional investigators. White House aides on Sunday sought to explain the president’s assertion on Twitter on Saturday that he has the “complete power to pardon” his relatives and advisers — and possibly even himself.
Jay Sekulow, one of the private lawyers representing Mr. Trump, said the president was simply asserting his authority after a Washington Post report that he was discussing it. But Mr. Sekulow denied that pardons were being considered. “We’re not researching the issue, because the issue of pardons is not on the table, there’s nothing to pardon from,” he said on ABC.
Asked if Mr. Trump could pardon himself, Mr. Sekulow said it was a matter of debate among legal scholars. “From a constitutional, legal perspective you can’t dismiss it one way or the other,” he said. “I think it’s a question that would ultimately, if put in place, would probably have to be adjudicated by the Supreme Court to determine constitutionality.”
Still, even as Mr. Sekulow said pardons were not being considered, a senior administration official acknowledged that the president has raised the matter.
“I’m in the Oval Office with the president last week; we’re talking about that,” Mr. Scaramucci said on “Fox News Sunday.” “He brought that up. He said, but he doesn’t have to be pardoned. There’s nobody around him that has to be pardoned. He was just making the statement about the power of pardons.”
Mr. Scaramucci said the Russia investigations were a distraction. “I worked intensely on that campaign, and I think that the Russian situation is completely overblown,” he said. “I was falsely accused of things related to Russia. I know other people are being falsely accused of things related to Russia. And I’m confident that tomorrow when Jared Kushner speaks, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed in saying this to you, it’ll probably be the last time that he has to talk about Russia.”
Follow Peter Baker on Twitter @peterbakernyt
Noah Weiland contributed reporting.
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