Trump Administration Weighs Return of Sanctioned Russian Property

Killenworth, an estate built in 1913 for George du Pont Pratt, is one of two Russian diplomatic buildings under sanctions in the U.S. Rashid Umar Abbasi/Reuters

The Trump administration is looking to hand back two Russian diplomatic properties in the U.S. that were shuttered late last year after an intelligence probe found they were used to meddle in the 2016 presidential election.

The properties in Maryland and New York were closed on December 30 when former President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats—including members of Russia's intelligence services—and sanctioned Russian businesses for attempts to interfere in the election.

The potential return of the properties comes with a few strings attached, according to The Washington Post, which spoke with several people with knowledge of the discussions between Russia and the Trump administration. The idea angered Democrats, who called it a "reward" for Russia.

The handover would mark the beginning of a rollback of punishments for what American intelligence agencies found in a January report was a concerted effort by Russia to elect Donald Trump. Russia did this, they said, through a misinformation campaign and hacking of American political parties.

In early April, the Trump administration proposed trading the return of the properties for permission to build a new U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg. But when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak visited Washington D.C. on May 10, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told them the return came with no obligations.

On May 22 the Twitter account for Russia's embassy in the U.S. tweeted out that the country's government is seeking the return of its diplomatic property in the U.S. "asap" or "we will have to take counter measures."

Read more: Putin defends Trump, calls Russia probe an excuse for election loss

In a story published late May in the Russian state media outlet Sputnik, Russian diplomat Denis Gonchar said that a trade was not acceptable as "the United States did not have anything belonging to them by right of ownership taken away."

Russia ramped up pressure on the Trump administration to return the property Wednesday by repeating demands to reopen access to the properties. An aide to President Vladimir Putin, Yuri Ushakov, told the state newswire TASS that the current U.S. sanctions "will not remain unanswered." Ushakov said that "the best option would be if the American side reviewed" the sanctions.

Yet Ushakov acknowledged that there is a "difficult internal political situation" for the U.S. in light of the multiple ongoing investigations into Russian interference in the election.

Democrat, and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, wrote on Twitter late Wednesday that the properties should not be returned after Russia interfered in the election. "Why reward them?" he asked. Schiff is helping lead one of the congressional investigations into the interference.

Democratic National Committee Chairman, Tom Perez, condemned the idea. "Trump would put Americans at risk and send an unmistakable message to foreign powers that attacks on our election process will go unpunished," Perez said in a statement.

After Obama imposed the sanctions in December, Russian foreign minister Lavrov moved quickly to impose tit-for-tat sanctions against the United States. Putin held back from the decision and Trump praised the Russian leader for not retaliating, calling him "very smart!"

Return of the properties, however, could come with some caveats, anonymous sources told the Post . The Trump administration is considering withdrawing diplomatic immunity for the properties, allowing U.S. law enforcement to enter.