President Donald Trump reportedly tried to lift U.S. sanctions against Russia soon after being sworn into office.
"There was serious consideration by the White House to unilaterally rescind the sanctions," Dan Fried, the former chief U.S. coordinator for sanctions policy, told Yahoo News.
Fried recalled that he got "panicky" phone calls from U.S. government officials who had been told by the Trump administration to develop proposals to relax or remove economic sanctions, and return diplomatic compounds in New York and Maryland to Russia.
According to Fried, one government official asked him: "Please, my God, can’t you stop this?"
Former President Barack Obama instituted the sanctions against Russia in response to Russia's reported manipulation of the 2016 election and for its military actions in Ukraine.
Fried was so concerned that he called Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, and urged the passing of legislation to "codify" the sanctions to make it hard for Trump to lift them.
Tom Malinowski, Obama’s assistant secretary of state for human rights, said that he also lobbied Congress after he learned Trump wanted to lift the sanctions and do a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin to reach a "grand bargain."
"It would have been a win-win for Moscow," said Malinowski, who announced new sanctions against senior Russian officials for violating human rights only days before he left office.
Proposed legislation by Cardin and Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina in February would have banned the Trump administration from lifting the sanctions against Russia without submitting a proposal for Congress to review.
However, the urgency to pass the bipartisan bill faded after Michael Flynn, Trump's national security adviser, resigned following reports that he had secretly met with the Russian ambassador.
Malinowski said: "[I]t didn’t take too long for it to become clear that if they lifted sanctions, there would be a political firestorm."
An unidentified White House official told Yahoo News: "We’ve been reviewing all the sanctions -- and this is not exclusive to Russia. All the sanctions regimes have mechanisms built in to alleviate them. It’s been our hope that the Russians would take advantage of that” by ending the conflict in Ukraine, which did not happen.
During an interview with former Fox News host Bill O'Reilly in April 2016, Trump expressed his interest in improving relations with Russia:
I am saying that I think I would possibly have a good relationship. I don't know. I think [Putin] said some really nice things. He called me a genius. He said, 'Trump's a genius.' OK. So, you know, that's nice. That's not going to persuade me one way or the other.
I have people on the debate stage that said, get him to disavow it. Get him. And I said, 'Why would I do that?' But no, no, he has been very nice to me. But let me just tell you. I have no idea, Bill. Maybe we will, maybe we won't. If we can make a great deal for our country and get along with Russia, that would be a tremendous thing.