2018 U.S. Midterm Elections

Victorious House Democrats Pledge to Probe Trump’s Foreign Policy

U.S. allies can expect extended hearings on Iran, Yemen, and many other key issues.

Democrats cheer results of midterm election in Austin, Texas, Nov 6 (SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP/Getty Images)
Democrats cheer results of midterm election in Austin, Texas, Nov 6 (SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP/Getty Images)

Perhaps President Donald Trump’s vision of the United States as nativist and isolationist isn’t so appealing to Americans after all.

That was likely the reaction of many foreign governments—U.S. friends and foes alike—as they watched the Democrats retake control of the House of Representatives in Tuesday’s midterm election, ushering in what is certain to be a rocky two years of harsh oversight for Trump and a tough re-election challenge in 2020.

To much of the world, which is still in a state of shock over Trump’s abrupt repudiation of major treaties, his threats of tariffs on allies, and his broad retreat from the international system, the vote was a welcome message that large numbers of Americans are apparently as opposed to the president’s policies and style as many people abroad are.

The Democratic victory in the House will at least “prevent things from totally spiraling out of control,” one European diplomat said before the vote.

“Tomorrow will be a new day in America,” an ebullient Democratic California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who is bidding to resume her role as speaker of the House after eight years in the minority, told supporters in a speech late Friday night. Pelosi pledged a new era of “accountability” for the Trump administration. 

Above all, the Democratic win conveyed the message, particularly to U.S. allies chafing under Trump’s policies, that relief may be at hand in two short years—that Trump is vulnerable in the next presidential election in 2020. (Although this may be a mistaken conclusion: Two of the last three U.S. presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, won re-election despite big midterm losses after their first two years.)

Though Republicans kept control of the Senate—indeed gained more seats than they had before—what will almost certainly ensue now is a relentless series of House investigations into Trump and his administration promised by the Democrats. Armed with the subpoena power and control of key committees, leading House Democrats who have been clamoring for a year and a half to open these probes—only to be rebuffed by a Trump-beholden Republican House—will begin to act quickly after they take office in January.

Various committees are expected to look into Trump’s tax returns and business dealings going back decades, alleged money laundering, and the role of family members such as Donald Trump Jr. in alleged collusion with Russia. They will also investigate possible malfeasance by a slew of cabinet officials such as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who has faced scrutiny over his financial dealings; Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin; former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt; and former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who allegedly abused travel and office expenses.

All this will undoubtedly mean a lot more negative headlines, potentially undercutting Trump’s popular appeal going into 2020, especially if the investigations underway by special counsel Robert Mueller and the Southern District of New York into the president’s ties to Russia and his business dealings lead to a push for impeachment. Democrats in the House will also make repeated efforts to block appropriations bills on military spending and other issues, such as Trump’s proposed wall at the U.S. border with Mexico. Beyond that, Democrats can be expected to hold hearings on Trump’s abrupt departure from treaties and agreements such as the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate pact.

Several leading Democratic members of Congress are set to take over powerful oversight committees in the House, among them Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee; Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee; and Rep. Adam Schiff, who will assume control of the intelligence committee and is expected to aggressively supplement Mueller’s and the Southern District of New York’s investigations. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who is expected to take over the Judiciary Committee, has promised to begin an investigation into whether Trump has violated anti-corruption provisions of the Constitution with his family businesses and obstructed the FBI and Justice Department. Rep. Elijah Cummings, who is set to take over the oversight committee, will send out a slew of subpoenas on potential fraud and abuse and alleged voter suppression schemes.

A Democrat-led House will likely launch hearings quickly on U.S. aid to Saudi Arabia in Yemen and other secret wars. In late October, Smith and Engel sent Trump a letter warning against an exit from both the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, saying that “[i]t would divide our allies and play directly into President Putin’s hands.” As committee chairmen, they would have the power to hold repeated hearings and force the Trump administration to explain its plans in ways the Republican-led House has not done.

Some of those hearings—which Democratic members have been shouting for since early 2017—could be acutely embarrassing for the Trump administration. “We will see a lot of demand for information,” said Alexandra Bell, a former senior arms control official.

“There’s no sort of indication from the U.S. military that we need INF missiles. And here we’ve spent a long time telling countries like Pakistan that they shouldn’t invest in more tactical nuclear weapons, that this was the way to an arms race.”

Some U.S. adversaries, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, might be somewhat disappointed by Tuesday’s outcome, since it could slow the dissolution of relations between the United States and its erstwhile allies. Others, such as Iran, will no doubt be heartened that some version of the 2015 nuclear deal repudiated by Trump might be rescued—even if they don’t say so aloud.

“We’re not pinning any hopes on [the midterm elections] or 2020,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently told USA Today. After all, Zarif said, all U.S. administrations, whether Democratic or Republican, have been “hostile” to Iran to varying degrees.

Most friendly foreign governments had hoped for a Democratic victory for the same short-term reason that, according to the polls, some disaffected American voters did: They wanted to see some restraint on a president whose rhetoric is frequently offensive and who is increasingly unilateral in his dealings both with the world and with Congress. Despite unemployment rates that are near midcentury lows and rising wages, Trump’s approval ratings among Americans have hovered mostly below 40 percent.

Most of all, many foreign governments see a Democratic victory as some kind of brake on Trump’s headlong rush to shatter the rules of the global system and decades of painstaking alliance building.

In less than two years, Trump has pulled out of several multilateral pacts; announced his withdrawal from the most significant nuclear arms control accord in four decades, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; and declared his hostility to NATO, the G-7, the European community, and the World Trade Organization.

“A new Congress led by the opposition party would, for the first time, subject him to a healthy dose of American checks and balances,” said Nate Jones, the former National Security Council counterterrorism director under Obama. “Second, it would send a clear and unequivocal message that there are political consequences for his policies and his rhetoric.”

Fawaz Gerges, a scholar at the London School of Economics, said, “America’s allies and foes hope that the Democrats might be able to apply the brakes” to Trump’s impetuousness. “This would be welcome news in most European capitals, China, and Japan—though not in Russia, Israel, Arab Gulf countries, and Egypt.”

Still, the Democratic victory in the House will not dramatically change many of Trump’s policies. Many leading Democrats in Rust Belt states that brought Trump to victory in 2016, for example, have voiced restrained approval of the president’s trade tariffs, suggesting he co-opted a major plank in the progressive agenda. “I want to give him a big pat on the back,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) said earlier this year. “I have called for such action for years and been disappointed by the inactions of both President [George W.] Bush and Obama.”

Nor is there much a Democratic-controlled House could do about tariffs. In reality, the House of Representatives has much less power over foreign policy than the Senate, which can approve treaties and confirm high officials.

Hence, despite Tuesday’s result, some foreign observers see little more than continued political paralysis in a starkly divided United States and the continuing spread of Trumpism (or virulent nationalism) around the world.

“Short term, I’m pessimistic either way this goes,” another European diplomat said before the vote. “I fear triumphalism or denial doubling down either way.”

Like Iran, most overseas governments have been affecting disinterest in the outcome—not wishing to become part of the post-2016 narrative of foreign election interference. But Zarif, who spent years negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal from which Trump withdrew this year and is still hoping to salvage it, will be watching the results closely. If there is a prospect of Trump being gone by January 2021, Zarif will hedge his bets on departing the multilateral pact—even in the face of renewed U.S. sanctions.

Conversely, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may well be somewhat panicked by auguries of a Democratic victory in 2020. He could push harder for a deal with Trump but hold something in his back pocket just in case (a strategy that may become clearer when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with his North Korean counterpart this week).

Kim, who is believed to study U.S. elections closely, must know that the Democrats, while in favor of diplomacy, will insist on more hearings on details of the negotiation.

“Some people will make hay while the sun shines,” said James Steinberg, who served as deputy secretary of state under Obama. “If people have an interest in doing business with Trump, they may want to do it now.”

FP senior diplomatic reporter Colum Lynch contributed to this story.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy@michaelphirsh

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