The White House pushed back Thursday at reports that sanctions against Russia were being rolled back, describing the easing of restriction on transactions with the country’s intelligence services was a “regular course of action.”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that reviews of financial sanctions after implementation was standard operating procedure for every administration.
“It’s a fairly common practice after sanctions a put in place to go back and look for carveouts,” he said during a daily White House press briefing. “That’s a regular course of action.”
Concerns about President Trump’s relationship with Russia were revived by a Treasury Department statement that sanctions against the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) were being eased. The notice said U.S. companies now could make limited transactions with the FSB when required to import information technology into Russia.
The broader significance of the move was not immediately clear.
Sanctions against Russia, including financial, economic and targeted travel restrictions, were imposed in response to the country’s annexation of Crimea and interference in eastern Ukraine.
Mr. Trump’s dealings with the former Cold War foe became a flashpoint after U.S. intelligence officials blamed Russia for email hacks during the presidential campaign that hurt Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and therefore benefited Mr. Trump.
The sanctions targeting FSB had undoubtedly been relaxed, said Christopher Swift, a lawyer with the D.C.-based firm Foley & Lardner who specializes in national security and international law. But he added that it provided a “very narrow carveout” for U.S. businesses importing cybersecurity products into Russia.
“The practical affects of this are reasonable but the political optics are just terrible,” he said.
The FSB is responsible for licensing cybersecurity and other information technology products in Russia, similar to the role of the Federal Communications Commission in the U.S. The sanctions against transactions with FSB had the effect of shutting down those high-tech imports.
“This will address that wrinkle that [the Obama administration] probably didn’t realize when they rolled it out,” Mr. Swift said.
Mr. Trump last week spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time as president.
The issue of sanctions was not raised in the call, according to Russian news report.