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Seizing Russian Assets to Help Ukraine Sets Off White House Debate

“I think it’s very natural that given the enormous destruction in Ukraine and huge rebuilding costs that they will face, that we will look to Russia to help pay at least a portion of the price that will be involved,” she said. “It’s not something that is legally permissible in the United States.”

But within the Biden administration, one official said, there was reluctance “to have any daylight between us and the Europeans on sanctions.” So the United States is seeking to find some kind of common ground while analyzing whether a seizure of central bank funds might, for example, encourage other countries to put their central bank reserves in other currencies and keep it out of American hands.

In addition to the legal obstacles, Ms. Yellen and others have argued that it could make nations reluctant to keep their reserves in dollars, for fear that in future conflicts the United States and its allies would confiscate the funds. Some national security officials in the Biden administration say they are concerned that if negotiations between Ukraine and Russia begin, there would be no way to offer significant sanctions relief to Moscow once the reserves have been drained from its overseas accounts.

Treasury officials suggested before Ms. Yellen’s comments that the United States had not settled on a firm position about the fate of the assets. Several senior officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal debates in the Biden administration, suggested that no final decision had been made. One official said that while seizing the funds to pay for reconstruction would be satisfying and warranted, the precedent it would set — and its potential effect on the United States’ status as the world’s safest place to leave assets — was a deep concern.

In explaining Ms. Yellen’s comments, a Treasury spokeswoman pointed to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977, which says that the United States can confiscate foreign property if the president determines that the country is under attack or “engaged in armed hostilities.”

Legal scholars have expressed differing views about that reading of the law.

Laurence H. Tribe, an emeritus law professor at Harvard University, pointed out that an amendment to International Emergency Economic Powers Act that passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks gives the president broader discretion to determine if a foreign threat warrants confiscation of assets. President Biden could cite Russian cyberattacks against the United States to justify liquidating the central bank reserves, Mr. Tribe said, adding that the Treasury Department was misreading the law.

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