On Russia, Syria, and other top security issues, Trump may find his campaign priorities hamstrung by Republican leaders in Congress.
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.
No matter whom Trump picks for his cabinet — and who might actually accept top posts implementing his “America First” foreign policy — he’ll have to contend with GOP congressional committee chairmen at the top of defense, intelligence, and diplomatic panels in both the House and Senate, many of whom are wary, at best, of his approach to issues ranging from Russia to the Syrian civil war to immigration.
Most of the sitting chairs on these panels will remain where they are next year — and just emerged from an election season of defending, dancing around, or distancing themselves from the controversial GOP presidential candidate.
On Tuesday, Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the incoming president’s proposed thaw of U.S.-Moscow relations was “unacceptable.” An spokesman said he has no intention of leaving his powerful committee perch next year.
McCain was responding to Trump’s comments a day earlier in which he said he’s “very much looking forward to having a strong and enduring relationship with Russia,” followed by Moscow’s announcement on Tuesday of a renewed air assault on rebel-held areas of Syria and reports of resumed bombings on Aleppo.
“With the U.S. presidential transition underway, Vladimir Putin has said in recent days that he wants to improve relations with the United States,” McCain said in a statement, referring to the Russian president. “We should place as much faith in such statements as any other made by a former KGB agent who has plunged his country into tyranny, murdered his political opponents, invaded his neighbors, threatened America’s allies, and attempted to undermine America’s elections.”
McCain and Trump have long been at odds. Still, McCain’s statement served as an early-warning shot that Trump may find himself with a less pliant Congress than he expects on cabinet confirmations and the contentious foreign-policy issues that buttressed his campaign.
Former GOP presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), speaking for himself and McCain, told reporters Tuesday that whether on the Syrian conflict or lethal aid to Ukraine, “on all things Russia” they are going to be “hard-ass.”
“He is president of the U.S. and the leading diplomat for our country,” Graham said of Trump, whom he has opposed from the outset. “But Congress has a role in all of this.”
Trump’s relations with Congress will be defined both by the campaign scars and the staffing of his administration. Trump is reportedly considering several senators for top cabinet jobs: Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee for secretary of state, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama for secretary of defense or attorney general, or even GOP primary rival Sen. Ted Cruz for the Justice Department. He’s also reportedly looking at Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) for the job of Pentagon chief, although a person close to the Trump transition team told Foreign Policy that Hunter, at least, is an unlikely pick.
Earlier this week, Sessions appeared to be the front-runner for secretary of defense, and “once he decides how he wants to spend the next four years, he can do whatever he wants to do” in the administration, said the person familiar with the Trump transition, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Reports Wednesday morning suggested he is leaning toward attorney general.
Yet even allies such as Sessions and Corker have made known their disagreements with Trump on immediate security challenges, such as defense spending, immigration, and arming Ukraine. Since seniority in the Senate and House generally determines chairmanships, McCain and other outright Trump adversaries who oversee congressional committees are sure to stay right where they are.
McCain has made clear that he will challenge Trump on any number of fronts stemming from sharp — and often philosophical — disagreements over congressional oversight and America’s role in the world. Beyond the warming relations with Putin, McCain also is at odds with Trump’s stand to keep open the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, for example, as well as the president-elect’s vow to bring back “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” when interrogating terror suspects. McCain was tortured as a former prisoner of war in Vietnam and sponsored legislation to ban the practice.
On Syria, Trump has suggested that Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad largely be left alone to battle Sunni rebels in the name of fighting terrorists. That’s anathema to McCain and other Republican hawks.
“At the very least, the price of another ‘reset’ would be complicity in Putin and Assad’s butchery of the Syrian people,” McCain said Tuesday.
Trump’s positions on Syria — as well as Russia — have also troubled Corker, though he advised the president-elect throughout the campaign. Corker has called for the United States to be tougher on Assad and provide Ukrainians with lethal defensive aid. He recently described Putin as “very brutal” in enacting policy. On Trump’s coziness toward Moscow, Corker said, “I don’t share those views, and I think one needs to be careful about responding to flattery, let’s just be honest.”
Additionally, Corker has backed bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform and rejects banning Muslims from entering the United States as “completely counter to the values and principles of our great nation.” Trump has reversed himself several times on the ban he first called for in the wake of the attack last December in San Bernardino, California.
Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, (R-N.C.), has stopped far short of criticizing Trump’s relationship with Putin. He was reluctant to the point of dismissive about siding with U.S. intelligence indicating Russian hackers sought to meddle in the presidential election to the Republican nominee’s advantage. But the closer Trump’s relationship with Putin, the more difficult it may be for Burr to go along — especially if primacy over U.S. foreign policy turns into a battle between the White House and a staunchly GOP Congress.
“Donald Trump is not an ideologue,” Burr said Tuesday in trying to assuage concerns about the Trump administration. “He’s barely a Republican.”
Key House chairmen also appear unsettled by Trump’s security policies — especially as they pertain to Russia. They include:
- House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who told FP this week that Trump should tread carefully with Putin. Nunes has emerged as one of the Trump transition team’s key national security advisors after ousters in recent days.
- House Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas), who last month said he told Trump that Russia was behind the political campaign hacks, but that the nominee didn’t believe there was enough evidence. McCaul, who advised Trump on national security, said it’s “not [Trump’s] strength.”
- House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) did not endorse Trump during the campaign and has refused to say whether he voted for the GOP standard-bearer. Thornberry has voiced “concerns” about Trump’s foreign policy, although he welcomed Trump’s pledge to end sequestration, the budget caps that limit defense spending.
- House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) called for better vetting of refugees, but said Trump’s Muslim ban was unconstitutional.
However, congressional Republicans may still find themselves rallying around the new president on domestic issues that excite their constituents.
Unanimously re-elected to his post Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan has signaled support of Trump’s plans to overhaul Obamacare and enact strict immigration policies. So, too, has Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who was also unanimously re-elected in pro-forma elections Wednesday. Both are eager to demonstrate unity after a divisive campaign in which Trump declared war on the party.
Just weeks ago, Trump derided Ryan as a “weak and ineffective leader.” Ryan, meanwhile, has continued to promote his own “Better Way” foreign-policy agenda; it breaks with Trump’s ever-evolving “America First” foreign policy by promising a “strong NATO presence in Europe” and pushing back against Putin.
Trump may see some lawmakers, such as Corker, as more effective allies on Capitol Hill than in his cabinet. In a statement Monday, Corker told FP that he’s “excited” about the opportunity for Trump and the Congress, given that the GOP will control the White House and both chambers.
But he made clear that he also wants to restore Congress’s role in shaping U.S. foreign policy, and touted his committee’s “progress in restoring Congress’s constitutional role in advancing U.S. interests internationally.” That could well serve as a strong check on Trump’s vision of America’s place in a new world order: back at home.
Reporter Paul McLeary contributed to this report.