House Democrats excoriated Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Thursday following a classified briefing about the Trump administration’s decision to ease economic sanctions on three companies linked to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska.
“One of the worst classified briefings we’ve received from the Trump administration,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters. “The secretary barely testified.”
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She said that while lawmakers did receive an intelligence assessment, officials “spent most of the time reading an unclassified document … wasting the time of the members of Congress.”
House Democrats called for the briefing after Treasury announced last month that it would lift sanctions on Rusal, one the world’s largest aluminum producers, as well as En+ Group, the holding company that owns roughly half of Rusal, and EuroSibEnergo, a Russian power company. Deripaska — an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin who was one of several associates sanctioned last year over Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential election — has a large stake in all three companies .
Seven House Democratic chairmen sent Mnuchin a letter earlier this week expressing concerns about the move, which came after Deripaska agreed to lower his ownership stake in the firms. Personal sanctions on Deripaska are still in place.
The announcement to terminate sanctions against the companies started a 30-day review period for lawmakers to decide whether to block the move or not.
“We’ll see,” Pelosi replied when asked whether she would consider a resolution of disapproval to block the removal of sanctions.
With the sanctions slated to be lifted in coming days, members said they asked Mnuchin and his team to extend the deadline.
“To rush this through with the action taken as the calendar was running, almost on Christmas Eve, and expect the Congress to act during the government shutdown is really unjustified,” said Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Mnuchin vowed to get back to lawmakers “quickly.”
“We want to make sure that Congress has the appropriate amount of time to do this,” he said.
Mnuchin also said he was “somewhat shocked” by Pelosi’s remarks, arguing she didn’t stay for the entire session and that he answered half of the questions posed by members and had technical experts on hand.
He stressed that the December announcement was the “best judgment” of his department.
“This is not politically motivated,” Mnuchin said. “These companies weren’t picked upon because they did bad things; these companies were picked up because of their ownership and their control and we’re trying to segregate it.”
However, it’s unclear whether the new House Democratic majority will ever be comfortable with the proposed step.
“I’m afraid this is the tip of the iceberg of the undoing of the sanctions regime,” said Illinois Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, a member of the House Oversight Committee.
Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes, who serves on the Financial Services and Intelligence committees, told POLITICO that he “didn’t hear a clear rational to do this transition now.”
In a statement, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, agreed that the session “did not resolve” his concerns about Deripaska, and other Kremlin allies, holding sway over the sanctioned firms.
“It will be incumbent upon Congress to maintain pressure on the Treasury to explain its reversal of course and why Deripaska or his companies are suddenly deserving of this relief,” added Schiff, one of seven Democratic House chairmen who sent Mnuchin the letter.
Doggett, meanwhile, lauded his colleagues for attending the classified briefing, one of the first tangible steps the new majority has taken to oversee the White House.
“We are saying to the Trump administration — and to the Russians — we are looking carefully at every transaction you’re involved with,” he said.