Could Trump Veto, Block or Delay Russian Sanctions Bill?

Donald Trump
U.S. President Donald Trump boards Air Force One for travel to New York from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, on July 28. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

U.S. lawmakers have been almost unanimous in backing both tightening sanctions on Russia and taking out of the White House's hands the ability to lift sanctions. To be put into effect, their efforts now just await the signature of President Donald Trump—the man Russia hoped would drop the sanctions altogether.

Can the president still choose to scrap this bill? He certainly has veto power, and his government has suggested he may use it. In fact, his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was among the first to make the case, before a key vote on the sanctions bill in June, that the U.S. government needs to go into discussions with Russia and any other government with "flexibility" on matters such as sanctions—something that secretaries of state would be stripped of if White House oversight is replaced by congressional oversight.

Read more: How do the Russian sanctions work and who do they affect?

Earlier this week, Trump's new director of communications, Anthony Scaramucci, said Trump could veto the new sanctions not necessarily due to his longstanding admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin, but because he may think they are not harsh enough. Critics of the administration may point to more cynical motives—namely, the ongoing investigation into alleged collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign—as cause for him to break ranks with nearly every senior U.S. lawmaker on this issue.

Could Congress override a Trump veto?

Whatever the reason for a veto, Trump can use it. Whether it would suffice is a different matter, as congressional support for the bill would likely be strong enough to override his veto.

"Constitutionally if a law is passed by a two-thirds majority in both houses, the presidential veto can be overturned," Jacob Parakilas, assistant project director for the U.S. Project at Chatham House, tells Newsweek. "The mechanism in place means the bill then goes back for voting again and there is no real question that they would overturn the veto if Trump does use it."

The bill passed both the House and the Senate by more than a two-thirds majority; the House approved it with 419 votes and the Senate with 98.

Exercising the veto would trigger political backlash, possibly to little avail, Parakilas says: "The danger for any president using a veto in such a case is that they look ineffective and weak." It would likely give more ammunition to Trump's opponents who suspect him of harboring excessive sympathy for Putin. An explicit veto, however, is not his only option in avoiding the terms of the legislation.

The pocket veto: Trump's potential way out

Given the odds Trump is facing in Congress, an outright veto would be a bold message to say the least. But there is another way to keep the new sanctions bill from bearing his signature, and it mainly consists of leaving it unsigned at an opportune time, according to the Constitution's Article I, section 7, cl. 2.

"If Congress is in session, then a bill becomes law 10 days after the president receives it, unless the president vetoes it," Dan Farber, professor of law at the University of California, says. "But if Congress is not in session, then the bill dies unless it is signed by the president. This is called a pocket veto because the president can kill a bill just by 'putting it in his pocket.'"

Trump Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump meeting at the G20 Summit in Germany in July. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Normally, the final week of July would present a good opportunity for a pocket veto, as Congress routinely schedules its recess for the entirety of August. However, the contentious health care bill debate caused the Republican-led Senate to postpone the start of this recess until the third week of August. Depending on when U.S. lawmakers officially present the sanctions bill to Trump for signature, the pocket veto could become a possibility in the 10 days before the recess. But Congress could get around it by simply presenting the bill more than 10 days before the start of recess.

Another possibility is "to simply to delay sending the bill back to the White House until they return in September," Farber says. "That would definitely work because the 10-day clock doesn't start running until the bill is 'presented' to the president. If the president does try to use a pocket veto, I think members of the House and Senate will be quite angry, and they may respond by just passing the bill again and forcing Trump to sign it or veto it."

Can Trump sign but not deliver on the sanctions bill?

Signature and ratification does not equal implementation. There is precedent for a U.S. president to sign a bill but block elements of it from being put into practice.

"There's a potential gulf between signing a law and actually implementing it," says Pamela S. Karlan, professor at the Stanford School of Law. "One frequent historical example is a president who signs a law because it contains provisions that are critical to keeping the government running, but who announces at the time he signs the law that he considers particular provisions in the law unconstitutional and that he will not abide by them."

Karlan cites an example from 2002: Under President George W. Bush, Congress passed a bill that required the secretary of state to put the word "Israel" on the passport of an American citizen born in Jerusalem, if that citizen requested it. However, the legal status of that holy city is one of the issues at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—according to the U.N., the city is a separate entity (corpus separatum), and the U.S. State Department therefore does not recognize it as part of Israel. Official U.S. documents such as a passport list the location of the city simply as "Jerusalem" without specifying a country.

According to Karlan, the provision "was part of an appropriations act that the president needed to sign to keep the government running."

"When President Bush signed the act, he announced that he considered that requirement unconstitutional because it trenched upon the president's foreign affairs power. When the parents of a boy born in Jerusalem requested that the word 'Israel' be put on his passport, the State Department refused," she says.

The buck did not stop there: The case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled in President Bush's favor. So, there are some provisions one may not even be able to sue to enforce, whereas some could be resolved through litigation.

Will Trump implement the sanctions?

The potential for legal wrangling aside, the sanctions bill is a rare example of a major policy that has strong bipartisan support in a divided political environment. The political significance of sabotaging the bill through whatever means may be too "foolish" and "self-destructive" for the administration to consider, says Dan Fried, a former career U.S. diplomat and coordinator for sanctions policy until February.

"There's always scope for delay and obfuscation, but there are a lot of serious, good people in the Trump administration who will administer this, I think," he says. "Normally I would be giving you 10 reasons why congressional control on sanctions is a bad idea. But the Trump administration has itself to blame for irresponsible speculation about unilaterally lifting sanctions during the first weeks. They've taken good positions since, but nevertheless."

According to Fried, a crucial aspect of signing the bill is that sets of sanctions come with conditions of their own expiration. The sanctions on Russia introduced in 2014 due to its annexation of Crimea and the subsequent conflict in Ukraine's eastern territory are tied to the implementation of the ceasefire deal—the so-called Minsk agreement.

"If the Russians actually settle the Ukraine conflict on the terms of the Minsk ceasefire accords, then the administration can lift sanctions," Fried says. Other sanctions that were introduced in response to Russian interference in the U.S. election would be lifted on different terms.

Trump's White House has remained elusive on how the president will tackle the bill. Such an explicit vote in both houses has certainly demonstrated "significant opposition in the U.S. to strategic collaboration or cooperation with Russia," Parakilas says, putting pressure on Trump's general desire for closer ties with Russia.

"Certainly the idea that he is the president who struck the grand bargain or came to an accommodation with Russia, a reset 2.0 if you will, now looks incredibly unlikely," he says. "But Trump is not easy to predict. I don't really know what he is going to do, and his own spokespeople have been unclear."