WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Thursday defended its decision to lift sanctions on companies linked to the billionaire Russian oligarch Oleg V. Deripaska, despite deep concerns from newly empowered House Democrats that the move was an effort by President Trump to help an ally of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
In a 90-minute classified briefing with both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, explained the administration’s decision to lift sanctions on three companies controlled by Mr. Deripaska: EN+, Rusal and JSC EuroSibEnergo. He told lawmakers that the White House played no formal role in the decision and denied that the Treasury Department’s political appointees overruled career officials on the matter, according to lawmakers who attended the briefing.
Democrats left the briefing unconvinced and unimpressed, and Mr. Mnuchin told reporters after the meeting that he would consider delaying the lifting of the sanctions so skeptics in Congress could have more time to review the decision. However, he did not indicate that he was rethinking it.
Just hours before the meeting, the Treasury Department released a statement saying the administration had taken significant steps to ensure that Mr. Deripaska did not reassert his control over the three companies.
“These entities are undergoing significant restructuring and governance changes that sever Deripaska’s control and significantly diminish his ownership,” Mr. Mnuchin said in the statement. “Treasury will be vigilant in ensuring that EN+ and Rusal meet these commitments. If these companies fail to comply with the terms, they will face very real and swift consequences, including the reimposition of sanctions.”
Rusal is the world’s second-largest aluminum company, and Mr. Mnuchin has expressed concern about damaging aluminum markets if it went out of business. The secretary argued that relieving the companies from sanctions still punishes Mr. Deripaska under the agreement reached.
But several Democrats said that after hearing from Mr. Mnuchin, they did not believe the Treasury Department plan would sufficiently separate Mr. Deripaska’s companies from his control, or from Russia’s government.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California called the presentation “one of the worst classified briefings we’ve received from the Trump administration” and accused Mr. Mnuchin of “wasting the time” of Congress. She said Mr. Mnuchin was unresponsive to important questions.
Representative Brad Sherman, another California Democrat, said he opposed easing the sanctions because it would only increase the wealth of Mr. Deripaska. He said Mr. Mnuchin had no response to that argument except that lawmakers should trust the administration.
Mr. Mnuchin, who waited in a congressional auditorium for nearly an hour while lawmakers cast votes, said after the briefing that he would continue to be transparent with lawmakers and was “shocked” that Ms. Pelosi was critical of him.
“One of the goals of sanctions is to change behavior, and the proposed delistings of companies that Deripaska will no longer control show that sanctions can result in positive change,” Mr. Mnuchin said in the statement.
Mr. Mnuchin also pushed back against suggestions from critics that the administration had been soft on Russia. He noted that the administration had imposed sanctions on 272 “Russian related” individuals and entities.
Democrats remain wary of the administration’s handling of Russia, particularly as the Trump campaign continues to face scrutiny related to Russian interference in the 2016 election. But they have little chance of overturning the Treasury Department’s decision, announced in December after an aggressive lobbying campaign by companies controlled by Mr. Deripaska, without overwhelming bipartisan support.
The invitation by Democrats was one of their first demonstrations of oversight since taking control of the House this month. They have made clear that they would be less accommodating than the Republicans, and the new dynamic was evident in the swiftness with which Mr. Mnuchin scheduled the briefing after the formal request this week.
“We’re saying to the Trump administration, and to the Russians, we are looking at every transaction you’re involved with,” said Representative Lloyd Doggett, Democrat of Texas. “We will exercise our oversight.”