WASHINGTON — A day ahead of President Donald Trump's weekend call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the fight within the Republican Party over the direction of U.S. policy toward Moscow intensified.
Trump, who has said he wants a better relationship with Russia, was noncommittal on Friday about whether he was considering lifting U.S. sanctions against the former Soviet state, telling reporters at a news conference, "We'll see what happens. As far as the sanctions, very early to be talking about that."
But two top Senate Republicans — John McCain, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Rob Portman, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee — warned the White House about easing any punishments on Moscow and vowed to turn the sanctions into law.
"I hope President Trump will put an end to this speculation and reject such a reckless course," McCain said in a statement. "If he does not, I will work with my colleagues to codify sanctions against Russia into law."
Portman said lifting the sanctions "for any reason other than a change in the behavior that led to those sanctions in the first place would send a dangerous message to a world already questioning the value of American leadership and the credibility of our commitments after eight years of Obama administration policies."
U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that Moscow meddled in the 2016 election to help Trump become president.
Obama in late December ordered sanctions on Russian spy agencies, closed two Russian compounds and expelled 35 diplomats the U.S. said were really spies. The new penalties add to existing U.S. sanctions over Russia's actions in Ukraine, which have damaged Russia's economy but had only limited impact on Putin's behavior.
In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea in Ukraine, drawing widespread condemnation in Europe and the United States and a raft of penalties.
Relations are also tense over Putin's backing of Syrian President Bashar Assad and allegations of Russian meddling in the U.S. elections.
For his part, McCain has emerged as a frequent critic of Trump among Capitol Hill Republicans. He takes a dim view of trying to reset relations with Moscow and says Trump should remember that Putin is "a murderer and a thug who seeks to undermine American national security interests at every turn."
"For our commander-in-chief to think otherwise would be naive and dangerous," McCain said.
McCain and Portman are part of a bipartisan group of senators who have introduced sweeping legislation designed to go beyond the punishments against Russia already levied by Obama and to demonstrate to Trump that forcefully responding to Moscow's meddling isn't a partisan issue.
The bill would impose mandatory visa bans and freeze the financial assets of anyone who carries out cyberattacks against public or private computer systems and democratic institutions.
The legislation also mandates sanctions in Russia's all-important energy sector and on investments in the development of civil nuclear projects to rebuke Moscow for its provocations in eastern Ukraine and military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad.