By Ian Talley
WASHINGTON -- The recent federal indictment of Russian intelligence officers by the special prosecutor investigating Moscow's election interference and possible Trump campaign collusion lays the groundwork for Washington to slap more sanctions on its former Cold War foe.
The question is whether President Donald Trump will levy them.
Special counsel Robert Mueller's indictment of 12 officers from two cyber units in Russia's military-intelligence agency, the Main Intelligence Directorate of General Staff, or GRU, provides the evidentiary basis the Treasury Department needs to impose new sanctions.
A law passed last year by Congress and signed by Mr. Trump, along with existing executive orders, mandate punitive measures in response to Kremlin election interference, cyberattacks and military interventions in Ukraine and Syria.
The new law, known as Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or Caatsa, was invoked after Mr. Mueller in February obtained indictments against several Russian companies and citizens for their alleged involvement in election interference. In that instance, the Treasury Department sanctioned the defendants.
The July 13 indictment of more Russians provides Treasury officials with information on additional Kremlin-linked actors with which to take similar action. But Mr. Trump's challenges to Mr. Mueller's investigation have fueled skepticism he will approve more sanctions, leading to demands for action.
"Congress has provided important tools to hold Russia accountable for its meddling," said Rep. Ed Royce, the California Republican who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "The administration needs to use them to the fullest extent."
A White House official, asked if the president would impose additional sanctions, said the administration is "always preparing for the possibility" of additional actions. The National Security Council referred sanctions questions to the Treasury Department.
Treasury is working speedily to use "all the authorities that we have," a senior national security official said. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin promised earlier this year his office is readying new sanctions, including against Moscow's intelligence services and military.
But while Treasury can draft sanctions, Mr. Trump can say when and whether to pull the trigger. That is why Treasury hasn't imposed scores of sanctions targeting North Korea and its alleged abettors. "We had hundreds of new sanctions ready," Mr. Trump said last month amid high-level negotiations with Pyongyang. "But I said I'm not going to put them on until such time as the talks break down."
The administration contends it is being tough on Russia and executing all of its obligations under the law.
"We want to do everything within our power to protect the integrity of our elections, and we're going to look at that on a number of fronts," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Wednesday."
Since Mr. Trump took office, the U.S. has expelled Russian diplomats, closed a Russian consulate and sanctioned several key allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin, including billionaire owner of aluminum giant United Co. Rusal, Oleg Deripaska.
Mr. Royce pushed the administration in March to sanction Russia for using chemical weapons in violation of international law after Moscow was accused of poisoning a former spy with a deadly nerve agent on British soil.
But many legislators, including high-ranking members of his own Republican party, have chided the president for not using the full array of powers authorized by Congress. While diplomatic tensions between the two powers have escalated, Mr. Trump's overtures to Mr. Putin, a former intelligence officer, fomented concerns he is pulling his punches with Moscow.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said that before another meeting between Messrs. Putin and Trump takes place, Mr. Trump should work with Congress to craft fresh sanctions to deter Mr. Putin from meddling in the midterm elections. The White House has said it is working on a bilateral summit in Washington this fall.
"We need new sanctions, heavy-handed sanctions, hanging over his head," Mr. Graham said Sunday on CBS's Face the Nation.
Lawmakers also are watching to see if the administration will use the power they gave the White House to impose sanctions on Russian and European companies working on major new Russian natural-gas pipelines into Europe. U.S. officials have for months threatened to blacklist those firms, but Washington hasn't done so.
Congressional aides also say the administration could have sanctioned scores of entities involved in Moscow's military campaigns. "There's low-hanging fruit related to Iran and Syria," an aide said, referring to Russia's support of both governments.
While many sanctions laws force White House action, others provide legal wiggle room that makes them effectively discretionary. For example, Congress last year ordered the president to sanction Russia's defense and intelligence sectors, but lawmakers didn't set a deadline. And in legislating sanctions against Russia's pipelines, lawmakers only said the president "may" penalize those associates.
Some lawmakers are considering axing those loopholes, passing new laws compelling Mr. Trump to act.
Many lawmakers are calling for even tougher sanction laws, worried about Mr. Trump's commitment to punish Russia.
"Ratchet up -- not water down -- sanctions against Russia," New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, urged Republicans Monday on the Senate floor.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R., Texas), said Congress should "consider additional sanctions that would actually discourage and hold accountable the Russians for their election meddling."
Siobhan Hughes, Joshua Jamerson and Peter Nicholas contributed to this article.
Write to Ian Talley at [email protected]