Democratic Sen. Chris Coons says both parties will fight any attempt by the next administration to cozy up to Putin.
- By Dan De LuceDan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. He joined FP in June 2015 after working as Pentagon correspondent for Agence France-Presse. Prior to that, Dan reported for the Guardian from Iran until he was expelled by the regime in 2004. After the end of communist rule in Eastern Europe, Dan worked as a freelance journalist in Prague. He later covered the war in former Yugoslavia for Reuters from 1993 to 1995 before serving as Sarajevo bureau chief after the conflict. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Dan lives in Washington with his wife, journalist and author Caitriona Palmer, and his four children.
President-elect Donald Trump will encounter sharp opposition in the U.S. Congress from both parties if he seeks to cut a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin that jeopardizes Ukraine’s sovereignty or the security of NATO allies in Eastern Europe, Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware told Foreign Policy on Friday.
Coons, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he and other lawmakers are concerned about hints from Trump and his advisors regarding a possible accommodation with Moscow, meant in theory to enable a joint U.S.-Russian campaign against Islamic State militants in Syria.
“I think the idea that Donald Trump the great deal-maker could cut some deal with Putin that in any way involved Ukraine, and Ukraine’s territorial integrity, [or] the Baltic states and their status, would run into a wall of opposition in the Congress,” Coons said in an interview with FP.
As a candidate, Trump repeatedly spoke of his admiration for Putin as a “strong leader” and indicated he would be open to discussing an arrangement with Moscow that would enlist Russia’s assistance in the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, in Syria.
“When you think about it, wouldn’t it be nice if we got along with Russia?” Trump said on the campaign trail in July. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we got together with Russia and knocked the hell out of ISIS?” He has also repeatedly denied findings by U.S. intelligence officials that Russia was behind the hacks that meddled with the presidential election.
How the president-elect decides to approach Russia remains a question mark after a campaign in which Trump offered only the vaguest, and often contradictory, indications about how he would conduct the country’s foreign policy. And it will serve as a crucial test of his relations with Congress, including not just Democrats but fellow Republicans who have long harbored misgivings about Trump’s hints at a potential alliance with Russia.
Coons said bipartisan skepticism of Russia — and support for traditional allies — runs deep. At a recent meeting with political representatives and diplomats from the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia, lawmakers from both parties — including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — sent an “unmistakable unified message to our NATO allies in the three Baltic states,” Coons said.
Some Republicans in Congress have already sent clear warnings that they will fight any attempt to accommodate Russia or ease sanctions imposed on Moscow over its armed incursion into Ukraine. Days after the election, McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the United States should be wary of Putin’s offer to reset relations with Washington under a Trump presidency.
“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 said in a reference to Putin.
Trump has questioned the value and mission of the NATO alliance and in a July interview with the New York Times said he might not honor a U.S. commitment to back a transatlantic ally that came under attack. Trump’s supporters also watered down language in the Republican Party platform this summer that had called for arming Ukraine’s army fighting pro-Russian separatists.
Coons also predicted pushback from Congress if Trump fails to resolve conflicts of interest posed by his vast real estate holdings, which he called unprecedented and deeply worrying.
Trump needs to release his tax filings and place his global business empire in a blind trust — and not simply hand it over to his family — to avoid even the possibility that foreign governments could influence, or be seen to influence, U.S. government decision-making, the senator told FP.
“We have had wealthy and successful presidents before — everyone single one of whom, at least in the modern era, released their taxes so that the American people knew the scope of their conflicts. And they put their assets in blind trusts so that there was no question whether they were principally committed to pursuing the interest of the United States or their own,” Coons said.
“President Trump should do the same.”
And if Trump fails to decisively defuse the issue before he is sworn in on Jan. 20, then “Congress should act,” Coons said.
In that case, lawmakers should adopt legislation requiring the president to release his taxes and to be subject to the same strict ethics rules that apply to employees of the federal government, he said. Trump’s byzantine corporate edifice, with assets scattered across more than a score of countries — from India to Uruguay — worries lawmakers who fear U.S. policymaking could be colored by his financial interests.
“For us to have a Congress that fails to act on complicating entanglements by a president in his dealings with foreign powers would be an abdication of responsibility of shocking proportions by the Congress,” Coons said.
FP senior reporter John Hudson contributed to this article.
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