House Democrats clash with Mnuchin following sanctions briefing

House Democrats clash with Mnuchin following sanctions briefing
© Anna Moneymaker

House Democrats came out swinging after Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinOn The Money: Trump teases 'major announcement' Saturday on shutdown | Fight with Dems intensifies | Pelosi accuses Trump of leaking trip to Afghanistan | Mnuchin refuses to testify on shutdown impacts The case for Russia sanctions Treasury issues final rules on key part of Trump's tax law MORE briefed lawmakers behind closed-doors on Capitol Hill about the decision to lift sanctions on companies connected to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiDACA recipient claims Trump is holding ‘immigrant youth hostage’ amid quest for wall Fox’s Wallace to Pence: Is government shutdown all about ‘leverage?' Former House Republican: Trump will lose the presidency if he backs away from border security MORE (D-Calif.) blasted the Thursday briefing as a waste of time, describing it as “one of the worst classified briefings we’ve received from the Trump administration.”

“I went in sympathetic to the process that has been established for sanctions and the relief of sanctions. I came out just unimpressed because of the fact that the secretary of the treasury is here — he barely testified at all,” Pelosi told reporters, adding that they spent “most of the time reading an unclassified document.”

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Mnuchin, who was still behind closed doors at the time of her comments, shortly thereafter pushed back against her claims, saying he had made himself readily available to answer any of their questions and that he quickly accommodated Democrats’ briefing request.

“I was somewhat shocked at the assessment so I would just comment, I came up here voluntarily two days after I had the request,”  Mnuchin told reporters after leaving the briefing.

“I was available. Not only did we accommodate them and wait while they were voting, but we sat through and gave them close to an hour and a half and answered all their questions,” he added.

Mnuchin’s appearance comes after Democrats demanded he testify over the lifting of the sanctions on Deripaska, which highlights the new majority's aggressiveness in calling in Trump administration officials for scrutiny of their decisions.

A group of House Democrats leading seven powerful committees asked the Treasury chief on Tuesday to brief lawmakers by Friday, arguing in a letter that they were not been given sufficient time to review the sanctions decision before the government shutdown began.

Other Democrats not only echoed Pelosi, they also went further.

“I am afraid this is the tip of the iceberg of the undoing of the sanctions regime,” Rep. Raja KrishnamoorthiSubramanian (Raja) Raja KrishnamoorthiHouse Democrats clash with Mnuchin following sanctions briefing Pelosi cranks up shutdown pressure on Trump, GOP Here are the lawmakers who will forfeit their salaries during the shutdown MORE (D-Ill.) said, stating that he is “very disturbed” by what he learned.

“I think we need to exercise oversight,” he added.

The administration's current plan is to ease sanctions on the three businesses tied to the Oligarch — Rusal, EN+ and EuroSibEnergo. But Deripaska will remain sanctioned and his property blocked. Lawmakers, however, have voiced concern about the business links, despite Deripaska reducing his ownership stake in the three companies to below 50 percent.

Other Democrats shuffling out of the interview, which started at 4 p.m., publicly called on Mnuchin to give an extension before lifting the sanctions. They said this request is needed to have more time to review the decision to terminate sanctions against three companies tied to Oleg Deripaska, a billionaire aluminum magnate with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“We received a question today as to whether we would give them more time. I assured them that there was no objective to do anything over the holidays. We are going to take that into consideration,” Mnuchin said, adding that they “want to make sure Congress has the appropriate amount of time to review this.”

Concern about Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election is at the heart of the sanctions issue. Democrats seemed to suggest that the decision was in part linked to President TrumpDonald John TrumpDACA recipient claims Trump is holding ‘immigrant youth hostage’ amid quest for wall Lady Gaga blasts Pence as ‘worst representation of what it means to be Christian’ We have a long history of disrespecting Native Americans and denying their humanity MORE’s ties to Putin, which has led him to soften on the Kremlin leader’s ally. Mnuchin argued this is not the case.

“I would just comment that this administration has been tougher on Russia and has done more Russian sanctions than before, we will continue to do this,” Mnuchin said.

“Treasury has made its best judgment in applying the law and regulations for us to have effective sanctions programs. We both have to have a way that companies affected by ownership and control will be picked up and that a fair way that they will be delisted,” he continued.

In a statement released before his scheduled arrival, Mnuchin defended the administration’s decision.

“En+, Rusal, and ESE were designated for sanctions solely because they were majority-owned or controlled by Deripaska. These entities are undergoing significant restructuring and governance changes that sever Deripaska’s control and significantly diminish his ownership,” the statement reads. “They have committed to provide Treasury with an unprecedented level of transparency into their dealings to ensure that Deripaska does not reassert control. As a result, these entities will no longer be designated for sanctions.”

Mnuchin also noted in the statement that if these companies do not comply with their terms for having the sanctions lifted, then they “will face very real and swift consequences, including the reimposition of sanctions.”

The Trump administration announced the plan to ease up sanctions on Deripaska's businesses in December, after they had been imposed in April under CAATSA, a bipartisan law that was passed by Congress to punish Russia for interfering in the 2016 presidential race. The decision came three days before the government entered a partial shutdown on Dec. 22.