WASHINGTON — President Trump signed legislation on Wednesday imposing sanctions on Russia and limiting his own authority to lift them, but asserted that the measure included “clearly unconstitutional provisions” and left open the possibility that he might choose not to enforce them as lawmakers intended.
The legislation, which also includes sanctions on Iran and North Korea, represented the first time that Congress had forced Mr. Trump to sign a bill over his objections by passing it with bipartisan, veto-proof majorities. Even before he signed it, the Russian government retaliated by seizing two American diplomatic properties and ordering the United States to reduce its embassy staff members in Russia by 755 people.
The measure reflected deep skepticism among lawmakers in both parties about Mr. Trump’s friendly approach to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and an effort to prevent Mr. Trump from letting the Kremlin off the hook for its annexation of Crimea, military intervention in Ukraine and its meddling in last year’s American election.
Rather than the rapprochement Mr. Trump once envisioned, the United States and Russia now seem locked in a spiral of increasing tension.
Unlike other bills, Mr. Trump did not invite news media photographers to record the event, nor did he say anything about it to reporters. He ignored questions about the legislation at an unrelated event and instead relegated his comments to two written statements, one meant for Congress to describe caveats in his approval of the bill and the other issued to reporters to explain his grudging decision to sign.
As other presidents have in the past, Mr. Trump protested that Congress was improperly interfering with his power to set foreign policy, in this case by imposing waiting periods before he can suspend or remove sanctions first imposed by former President Barack Obama while Congress reviews and potentially blocks such a move.
In the statement to Congress, Mr. Trump said the bill “included a number of clearly unconstitutional provisions.” Although he added that “I nevertheless expect to honor” the waiting periods, he did not commit to it. Moreover, he took issue with other provisions, saying only that he ”will give careful and respectful consideration to the preferences expressed by the Congress.”
“This bill remains seriously flawed — particularly because it encroaches on the executive branch’s authority to negotiate,” Mr. Trump said in the separate statement to reporters. “Congress could not even negotiate a health care bill after seven years of talking. By limiting the executive’s flexibility, this bill makes it harder for the United States to strike good deals for the American people and will drive China, Russia and North Korea much closer together.”
“Yet despite its problems,” he added, “I am signing this bill for the sake of national unity. It represents the will of the American people to see Russia take steps to improve relations with the United States. We hope there will be cooperation between our two countries on major global issues so that these sanctions will no longer be necessary.”
Like Mr. Trump, who has offered no public comment or even a Twitter message about the Russian order to slash the number of American embassy workers, it appears that Mr. Putin has not completely given up on the idea of establishing closer relations. The Russian government took its retaliatory action before the president signed the bill so that it would be a response to Congress, not to Mr. Trump.
After Mr. Trump signed the measure on Wednesday, the Russian government reaction was mild. “De facto, this changes nothing,” said Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin press secretary, who was traveling with Mr. Putin in the Russian Far East, according to the Interfax news agency. “There is nothing new.”
He added that no new retaliation should be expected. “Countermeasures have already been taken,” he said.
A senior Foreign Ministry official noted that worsening relations could further unravel arms control cooperation, according to Interfax, but seemed to suggest that would not happen. Noting that the two countries are the world’s largest nuclear powers, Mikhail Ulyanov, the ministry’s arms control director, said that “destroying indiscriminately everything that there is in this sphere would be extremely unwise.”
Still, for at least some prominent political leaders, the language on both sides was caustic and offered little conciliation. Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign affairs committee for the upper house of Parliament, said Mr. Trump’s decision to sign the legislation showed that he “caved” into pressure. “The U.S. leaves no chance for constructive cooperation with Russia,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
And Vassily Nebenzya, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, said the law would do nothing to change Moscow’s policies. “Those who invented this bill, if they were thinking that they might change our policy, they were wrong,” he told reporters. “As history many times proved, they should have known better that we do not bend, we do not break.”
American lawmakers said the new law sent an important signal that Russia would be held to account for its election interference and aggression toward its neighbors. But the lawmakers expressed concern about whether Mr. Trump would try to sidestep the measure.
The president’s signing statement “demonstrates that Congress is going to need to keep a sharp eye on this administration’s implementation of this critical law and any actions it takes with respect to Ukraine,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic minority leader.
Senator Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee and a prime driver behind the legislation, said, “I remain very concerned that this administration will seek to strike a deal with Moscow that is not in the national security interests of the United States.”
The Trump administration continues to send mixed messages about Russia.
Vice President Mike Pence, who has been visiting Eastern Europe in recent days to shore up allies nervous about an assertive Kremlin, told a group of Balkan prime ministers on Wednesday that Russia sought “to redraw international borders by force” and “undermine your democracies.”
“The United States will continue to hold Russia accountable for its actions and we call on our European allies and friends to do the same,” he said in Montenegro, the latest Eastern European nation to join NATO. He noted that the president would sign the sanctions legislation.
“Let me be clear, the United States prefers a constructive relationship with Russia based on mutual cooperation and common interests,” Mr. Pence said. “But the president and our Congress are unified in our message to Russia: a better relationship and the lifting of sanctions will require Russia to reverse the actions and conduct that caused sanctions to be imposed in the first place.”
But just a day earlier, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson offered a somewhat different take, focusing on the potential for cooperation with Russia in fighting the Islamic State and finding a resolution to the civil war in Syria. Rather than sounding unified with Congress, Mr. Tillerson complained that lawmakers should not have passed the sanctions legislation.
“The action by the Congress to put these sanctions in place and the way they did, neither the president nor I are very happy about that,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “We were clear that we didn’t think it was going to be helpful to our efforts, but that’s the decision they made. They made it in a very overwhelming way. I think the president accepts that.”