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The Trump administration was gearing up to lift sanctions on Russia when the president took office, but career diplomats ginned up pressure in Congress to block the move, two senior former State Department officials told NBC News Thursday.
It's the latest evidence that President Trump moved to turn his favorable campaign rhetoric about Russia into concrete action when he took power.
Daniel Fried, who served as a senior diplomat until he retired in late February, said he became aware of the sanctions effort in the early weeks of Trump's presidency.
Fried appeared on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow show Thursday, shortly after the story was first reported by Yahoo News.
He said State Department colleagues approached him, "concerned that the Trump administration, the incoming team was going to unilaterally rescind the sanctions on Russia, which had been placed there because of Russia's aggression on Ukraine. And it was further said by these people that there would be no action required from Russia."
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment from NBC News.
Fried declined to say who approached him, but "I found the story sufficiently credible, that I was concerned that there might actually be something done quickly."
So Fried and another former diplomat, Tom Malinowski, who was assistant secretary of state for human rights, began lobbying Congress to pass legislation codifying the sanctions, Malinowski told NBC News. A bill has been introduced in the Senate, but it has not passed.
The Trump team backed off, Malinowski said he believes, because officials came to see that lifting the sanctions would look terrible in light of the drumbeat of revelations over potential Trump campaign coordination with the Russian election interference effort.
"It would be politically stinky," he said.
Malinowski said he is now concerned that even if the Trump administration doesn't lift sanctions on Russia, it will stop vigilantly enforcing them. The U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Asset Control, which polices sanctions, does not have a permanent chief, and the State Department does not have a permanent sanctions coordinator.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that the Trump administration is considering handing back to Russia two U.S. diplomatic compounds that the Obama administration seized as punishment for Russian election hacking.
Russia has not changed its behavior in any substantive way to merit that or other sanctions relief, Malinowski said.
"What was troubling about these stories is that suddenly I was hearing that we were preparing to rescind sanctions in exchange for, well, nothing," Fried said on MSNBC.