A senior House Democrat accused President Trump of planning "to pay back the Kremlin" for the Russian-linked cyberattacks against the Democratic Party during the 2016 elections.
Trump's team reportedly might return two facilities in the United States that Russia lost when then-President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on the Russians in December as punishment for stealing and leaking Democratic emails. New York Rep. Eliot Engel, one of the House Democratic leaders on foreign policy, accused Trump of having corrupt motives.
"I can't help but ask if Trump is now starting to pay back the Kremlin for criminally hacking the election in his favor," Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Thursday. "This is another offense against the American people and another step toward selling out to the Kremlin."
Obama seized the facilities, saying they were spy bases, and expelled 35 Russians in the country accused of being intelligence officers rather than diplomats. At the time, Trump was still denying that Russia was behind the theft and release of the Democratic documents; he didn't acknowledge Russian complicity in the email hacks until early January. So Obama's team designed the sanctions in order to maximize the political pain of reversing the sanctions.
"So if a future president decided that he wanted to allow in a large tranche of Russian intelligence agents, presumably a future president could invite that action," an Obama administration official told reporters during a briefing on the sanctions. "We think it would be inadvisable ... these diplomatic compounds were being used for intelligence purposes. That is a direct challenge to U.S. national security, and I don't think it would make much sense to reopen Russian intelligence compounds."
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has spoken nonetheless with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov about returning the facilities, according to a new report. "Before making a final decision on allowing the Russians to reoccupy the compounds, the administration is examining possible restrictions on Russian activities there, including removing the diplomatic immunity the properties previously enjoyed," the Washington Post reported. "Without immunity, the facilities would be treated as any other buildings in the United States and would not be barred to entry by U.S. law enforcement, according to people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters."
Trump has made other foreign policy decisions that angered the Russians, as well. Most notably, he authorized an airstrike against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime -- a beneficiary of major Russian military support -- to punish Assad for using chemical weapons against rebels in the ongoing Syrian civil war. The attack angered the Russian President Vladimir Putin's team, but their frustration provoked more criticism from Trump's team.
"I'm disappointed in that response from the Russians because it indicates their continued support for the Assad regime and, in particular, their continued support for a regime that carries out these type of horrendous attacks on their own people," Tillerson told reporters. "So I find it very disappointing, but, sadly, I have to tell you, not all that surprising."
Still, Engel cited the prospect of the sanctions' reversal as an argument for expanding the investigation of the any Trump team connections to the Russian cyberattacks, which is currently being led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller. "Every day I am more convinced that the appointment of Special Counsel Mueller is absolutely critical to the investigation of the connections between Trump and Vladimir Putin's Russia," Engel said. "But Congress also needs to establish an Independent Commission so that the American people will have a clear understanding of the breadth and depth of this sordid relationship."