In the latest, alarming, sign of Russia’s influence over not just President Trump but the GOP more broadly, Senate Republicans went to bat Wednesday for sanctioned oligarch Oleg Deripaska, aka “Putin’s favourite industrialist,” who had loaned $10 million to Trump’s now-jailed former campaign manager Paul Manafort.
One month ago, Trump’s Treasury Department announced it would lift sanctions on three companies tied to Deripaska, an aluminum and energy magnate. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin asserted that “these companies have committed to significantly diminish Deripaska’s ownership and sever his control.”
This week, Senate Democrats marshalled an effort to override Mnuchin and preserve the sanctions that took effect last April. According to the Treasury itself: “Deripaska has been investigated for money laundering, and has been accused of threatening the lives of business rivals, illegally wiretapping a government official, and taking part in extortion and racketeering. There are also allegations that Deripaska bribed a government official, ordered the murder of a businessman, and had links to a Russian organized crime group.” The oligarch, Treasury wrote, is a keen Kremlin loyalist: “Deripaska has said that he does not separate himself from the Russian state.”
The effort to keep the sanctions in place required 60 votes to succeed, and fell just short Wednesday when 42 Republicans voted to lift them, toeing the Trump line. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) whipped GOP nay votes, calling the effort a “Democratic stunt.” Those backing Trump included onetime Russia hawks Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
“42 Republican senators chose today to stand with Vladimir Putin and his cronies rather than the American people,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) tweeted after the vote, arguing it sent “an unfortunate signal to Putin that he can continue to mess around and manipulate the U.S. without serious repercussions.”
Democrats were joined in their motion by 11 Republicans, including Susan Collins (R-ME) who tweeted that “easing the sanctions sends the wrong message to Russia.” Marco Rubio (R-FL) objected that Mnuchin’s assurances were empty: “Deripaska loses stock” in his companies, Rubio tweeted, “but not control.” (Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders missed the vote.)
While the businesses linked to Deripaska —chiefly aluminum producer Rusal —are again free to profit in the global market, the oligarch himself, worth nearly $3.6 billion, is not. According to the Treasury: “Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska will remain sanctioned, and his property will remain blocked.”
Deripaska continues to be a person of intrigue in the Mueller investigation of Trump contacts with Russia. The Washington Post has reported that Manafort, who had longstanding and often contentious dealings with the oligarch, offered to give Deripaska “private briefings” on the presidential race as late as July 2016.