House Democrats have called Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, to testify before Congress on Thursday.Pool photo by Shawn Thew
WASHINGTON — House Democrats have summoned Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, to Congress on Thursday to deliver a classified briefing about the Trump administration’s plans to end sanctions on companies linked to the billionaire Russian oligarch Oleg V. Deripaska.
The briefing is an early instance of Democratic lawmakers flexing their new oversight muscles after taking control of the House last week. Such requests from Democrats were generally ignored or rebuffed during President Trump’s first two years in office, but cabinet officials are expected to face intense scrutiny over past decisions.
Congress is reviewing the administration’s decision — announced in December by the Treasury Department — to lift sanctions against three companies that Mr. Deripaska controls, EN+, Rusal and JSC EuroSibEnergo. Rusal is the world’s second largest aluminum company and concerns about its fate roiled the industry after the Trump administration announced sanctions last year.
The Treasury Department delayed the implementation of the sanctions several times amid an aggressive lobbying campaign by Mr. Deripaska’s corporate empire. The administration ultimately decided to lift the sanctions in the waning days of the last Congress — timing seen as intended to reduce the likelihood that Congress might block the move.
But the decision has provoked backlash given Mr. Deripaska’s close ties to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and the fact that Mr. Trump’s campaign remains under investigation for possibly coordinating with Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. Mr. Deripaska had business dealings with Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, who has been convicted of or pleaded guilty to an array of charges stemming from the special counsel’s investigation.
Democratic lawmakers sent Mr. Mnuchin a letter on Tuesday seeking an explanation for why the termination of the sanctions was justified. They expressed concern that Mr. Deripaska still maintained “significant ownership” of En+, the holding company that controls Rusal, while transferring shares to VTB, a sanctioned Russian bank. They also said that the government shutdown was hampering their ability to properly review the decision.
The solution approved by the Treasury Department lifts the sanctions against Mr. Deripaska’s companies in exchange for reducing his stake in EN+ from approximately 70 percent to less than 45 percent, and giving up control of that company and Rusal.
Because Mr. Deripaska would remain on the sanctions list, personally, even if his companies were removed from it, Treasury has described the agreement as a way to punish the oligarch by separating him from his companies without creating broader economic problems.
Democrats remain doubtful. Last week, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, laid the groundwork to try to block the lifting of the sanctions when he filed a congressional resolution disapproving of the move by the Treasury Department. But both chambers of Congress would have to pass the resolution, meaning that Senate Republicans would have to break ranks with Mr. Trump to pass the resolution and keep the sanctions in place.
The Treasury Department did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman last week said that the department would work closely with Congress as questions arise about the delisting.
Mr. Mnuchin said last summer that Rusal was important to the aluminum industry and that the United States was not trying to put it out of business.
Members of both parties are scheduled to attend the briefing on Thursday and Mr. Mnuchin is expected to be joined by other administration officials.