As Trump picks his cabinet, Congress flexes its foreign policy muscle

As we continue to watch Trump’s trial balloons float by on the selection of his national security cabinet, we still don’t know much about the foreign policy Donald Trump would have as President. On the other hand, most of Congress’s key players on foreign policy will still be around next year, and some of them have already begun to assert themselves. Committee chairs are (on one hand) pushing Trump to adopt more conventional foreign policy views, while (on the other) threatening to use their power to undermine any major policy shifts, specifically toward the Kremlin.

Some of the most powerful foreign-policy makers in the U.S. government are outside of President-elect Donald Trump’s control and are already signaling an early end to the honeymoon period over their fellow Republican’s security and diplomatic stances. [Foreign Policy, Molly O’Toole]

Ed Royce, the California Republican who conceived the North Korea sanctions bill that became law in February, and who stayed mostly quiet on Trump’s candidacy this year, will be back as Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee next year. Hopefully, so will his Senate co-champion, Cory Gardner, at the helm of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Asia Subcommittee. (Gardner’s rising star status was cemented this week by his selection to head the National Republican Senatorial Committee.) After some of Trump’s statements last year cast doubt on the alliance, both Royce and Gardner visited South Korea to reassure its leaders. Paul Ryan has also been supportive of the alliance.

Bob Corker, the current Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, remains in the running for Secretary of State. Whether Corker is nominated or stays on as Chairman, he’d be a moderating influence. If Corker does leave the Senate, next in line, in terms of seniority, would be Idaho Senator James Risch, who called voting for Trump “distasteful,” but said he’d do it anyway. If congressional Republicans really want to put their stamp on foreign policy, however, they’ll pick the talented and highly intelligent Marco Rubio, who is fresh off a convincing reelection win. 

Also back at the Armed Services Committee is the newly reelected John McCain, who has joined with his close friend, Lindsey Graham, in making clear that any pivot to Moscow will face significant resistance in Congress.

“[Trump] wants to reset with Russia. Maybe he can do it, but here’s my view about Russia: They’re a bad actor in the world, they need to be reined in,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Tuesday, adding that it would be up to Congress to let Russia “know the rules of the road pretty early,” even under a friendlier Trump administration.

“I think [Russia] should pay a price heavier than they’re paying now for what they’re doing in Syria and in eastern Europe,” Graham added. “I will consult with my colleagues what there is appetite for.”

Graham isn’t the only Trump critic who came out swinging on Tuesday on Russian involvement in global affairs. His close friend and colleague Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that “the price of another ‘reset’ [with Russia] would be complicity in Putin and Assad’s butchery of the Syrian people. That is an unacceptable price for a great nation.” [Washington Post, Karoun Demirjian]

What can Congress do, aside from mere words? The Post’s report says that lawmakers are preparing “a battery of legislative measures to hold the line against Russia, regardless of what the president-elect tries to do.” Such as? First, words do matter, and Graham is threatening to hold “a series of hearings about Russia’s misadventures throughout the world” and cyberattacks. Although Republicans balked at holding pre-election hearings into Russia’s meddling in the election, Republicans haven’t dropped the issue, either.

“We cannot sit on the sidelines as a party and let allegations against a foreign government interfering in our election process go unanswered because it may have been beneficial to our goals for the moment,” Graham said Tuesday. 

In the House, Royce also said he would be interested in investigating Russia’s connection to the hacking incidents. “I would hope that all federal agencies are investigating,” Royce said. “If we can get evidence, it’s very worthwhile to pursue any information we have.” [WaPo]

Second, Congress can do what it did to force a reluctant President Obama’s hand on North Korea: impose mandatory sanctions. This week, the House passed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2016, which could force the next administration to sanction Assad’s Russian backers, among others. If the name of the bill sounds familiar, that’s because “Caesar” is the code name for the subject of a chilling Ted talk by his former CIA handler, a man who would later become a House staffer and independent candidate: Evan McMullin. Ordinarily, the calendar would make it difficult for the Ceasar Act to pass this Congress, but even Corker says “there’s going to be much more opportunity for bipartisan passage” of bills pertaining to Russia, and that lawmakers “plan to be aggressive” before the year ends. If the bill doesn’t pass this year, expect to see the same text introduced again in January.

“Regardless of perspectives on Syria, there’s some unanimity of opinion in sending a message on this kind of conduct,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said prior to the vote. [WaPo]

Ditto North Korea, if you’ve been watching the recent oversight hearings in the House and Senate.

Finally, Graham is promising “a package that would help our Eastern European allies better deal with the threats they face from Russia” that includes broad defense aid “to make it harder for Russia to advance beyond where they are today.” If Trump’s rhetoric on cost-sharing helps defray the cost, that aid package may be more palatable in Congress. Ed Royce thinks Trump’s public skepticism about NATO was nothing more than a “very successful negotiating tactic” to persuade NATO allies “to pay their share of the burden” in funding the alliance. Corker claims to have seen an “evolution” in Trump’s views on Russia and NATO.

If Trump can persuade Japan and South Korea to contribute more funds without harming the integrity of the alliance, I’d say all ends well, except that I have no confidence that all ends well if the left wins South Korea’s next presidential election. Another outbreak of anti-Americanism could erode congressional support for the alliance below a critical level, especially if South Korean politicians are seen as feeding or playing into that. 

Historically, the President has enjoyed great deference in the conduct of foreign policy. This Congress is already hinting that it means to push the envelope in that historic power struggle. If Trump prefers to prioritize other matters, we may see an early compromise, especially if Trump appoints a more conventional and moderate cabinet. If not, we may see a period of intra-partisan conflict and gridlock between the executive and legislative branches. If Congress prevails, the result could be a historic expansion of Congress’s power over the conduct of foreign affairs.

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