A Human Rights Champion Comes to the House

Congressman-elect Tom Malinowski says he hopes his diplomatic credentials can help Democrats push back on Trump.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Then-U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski speaks at the State Department in Washington on April 13, 2016. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Then-U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski speaks at the State Department in Washington on April 13, 2016. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

It’s not unheard of for U.S. politicians to make the jump to the world of diplomacy, from George H.W. Bush to Hillary Clinton to Nikki Haley. It’s far less common for diplomats to do the reverse.

But Tom Malinowski is one of a few who has broken the mold, and he defeated a five-term Republican incumbent in the process. Malinowski, a former human rights campaigner and assistant secretary of state under President Barack Obama, will represent New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District after felling incumbent Rep. Leonard Lance in the midterm elections last week.

In an interview with Foreign Policy, Malinowski said that while his constituents in New Jersey come first, once he enters Congress he plans to dive into foreign-policy issues, such as championing human rights in President Donald Trump’s Washington, overseeing the State Department, and regulating U.S. arms sales abroad.

“The House has a voice which it can use to remind the rest of the world that the heart and soul of America has not changed, despite the embarrassment of Donald Trump on the world stage,” he said.

“I think the House of Representatives has considerable powers to shine a spotlight on important issues, whether it’s our relationship with Saudi Arabia, or our approach to North Korea, or human rights issues around the world,” he added. He said he is unsure of what committees he will join, including whether he’ll be on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which oversees the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, but, “one way or another, I expect to be involved.”

Malinowski joins a chorus of House Democrats champing at the bit to curb Trump’s controversial foreign-policy measures and probe his opaque financial empire’s foreign ties. Veteran human rights advocacy organizations have also pinned their hopes on Malinowski bringing human rights to the forefront of Washington’s legislative agenda to counterbalance an administration that has pushed the issue to the margins.

“Congress needs to get its voice back on foreign policy,” he said. “I think with few exceptions it hasn’t been heard in the last two years.”

Fresh from winning back the House but failing to regain control of the Senate in last week’s elections, Democratic leaders hope to provide a counterweight to Trump’s brash rhetoric and caustic treatment of U.S. allies around the world, something that has left lawmakers bristling in the past. “When the president disparages NATO, Congress needs to embrace it. When the president insults our allies, Congress needs to rally to their side,” Malinowski said.

He outlined other specific priorities he would pick up once entering office: ensuring Congress keeps a leading role in implementing sanctions on human rights abusers worldwide; regulating U.S. arms sales abroad, which have shot up 13 percent over the past year; scrutinizing the U.S.-Saudi relationship amid Saudi Arabia’s devastating war in Yemen and following the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul; pushing human rights issues in North Korea; and increasing oversight of the State Department following an era of plummeting morale and mismanagement under Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson.

“I think the [State] Department should expect a greater oversight from the House of Representatives,” he said.

What sets Malinowski apart from other lawmakers is his decades burrowed inside the Washington foreign-policy-making machine. It began in the mid-1990s, when he served as a speechwriter for Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright, then as a national security council staffer for President Bill Clinton. Later, he became director of the organization Human Rights Watch’s Washington office from 2001 to 2013, before joining the Obama administration as the State Department’s top diplomat on human rights.

As assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, he briefly sparked a diplomatic row between the United States and Bahrain in 2014, getting kicked out of the country after meeting with a Shiite opposition group during an official visit. During his time at Human Rights Watch, he was a leading voice on barring the U.S. practice of torture.

Born in Poland under Soviet rule, Malinowski moved to the United States at a young age. Before he joined government, he received a masters at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar. After over two decades working on human rights both in and out of government, he decided to run for Congress in October 2017, saying Trump “threatened” the values and issues he worked on throughout his career.

While foreign-policy issues weren’t a factor on the campaign trail in New Jersey, he thinks his background may have helped sway voters his way. “I obviously didn’t win because my plan for solving the North Korea crisis was better than my opponents’. Those kinds of issues weren’t voting issues,” he said. “But I think people saw my foreign-policy and national security experience as reassuring.”

Malinowski is one of several of fresh faces entering Capitol Hill as Democrats armed with decades of experience in national security and diplomacy. That small group of newcomers includes Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA analyst and senior Defense Department official, who turned Michigan’s 8th District blue, and, potentially, Andy Kim, a former Obama National Security Council staffer who has a razor-thin lead on Republican incumbent Tom MacArthur in a race still yet to be officially called.

The foreign-policy wonks turned politicos have kept in touch during their campaigns, Malinowski said. He expects to work closely with them on foreign affairs legislation and oversight.

“Legislating is a team sport. … I expect that there will be, within the freshman class, a group of us who will be working closely together on these issues.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer