Don't expect the mixed results of Tuesday's midterm elections to rein in "Trumpism. "
I refer to the president's personalized foreign policy that disses treaties, friendly leaders, old alliances, and anything multilateral, but favors dealings with strongmen.
Although the House of Representatives changed hands, the GOP's increased control of the Senate will block any effort to pass legislation that could circumscribe Donald Trump's foreign policy efforts. Moreover, Congress has rarely proved able to check a determined president on foreign policy in recent decades.
Yet the shift to a Democratic majority in the House gives Democrats control of key foreign policy committees, along with the power to hold investigations and issue subpoenas. That will have a public impact the president can't ignore.
Until now, Trump could operate with scarcely any checks or balances, ignoring briefings, and undercutting his own cabinet members. He could hold unprecedented solo meetings with adversaries (such as the Helsinki summit with Russia's Vladimir Putin, where there was no U.S. translator or notetaker present) and leave his own intelligence community in the dark.
Going forward, Trump's more controversial foreign moves can be subjected to House hearings.
The good news is that the Democrats who will most likely take over the powerful committees dealing with foreign issues are exceptionally experienced and well-versed in their subject areas: Reps. Eliot Engel (N.Y.) at the Foreign Affairs Committee; Adam Smith (Wash.) at the Armed Services Committee; and Adam Schiff (Calif.) at the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Mercifully, Schiff will replace the GOP's irresponsible Devin Nunes (Calif.), who turned the committee into a virtual arm of the White House.
"The House Foreign Affairs Committee will play an important role," says Rep. Brendan Boyle (D., Pa.), a committee member. He foresees possible hearings on issues related to Russia, not the Mueller investigation, but issues such as the defense of Ukraine or the role of NATO. He also expects hearings on U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia.
That committee's role will be vital, given the elimination of the GOP's most serious foreign policy experts in the Senate, including the death of John McCain and retirement of Bob Corker, the outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Those lonely GOP moderates often challenged Trump's more bizarre foreign policy moves.
A key issue will be whether the Democrats "use their power in a subtle way and ask questions that legitimately need to be answered," says the Council on Foreign Relations' Carla Anne Robbins, "or whether they go overboard like the Benghazi hearings." She refers to the shameful partisan circus conducted by former GOP Rep. Trey Gowdy, who chaired the House Oversight Committee and wasted taxpayer millions on a useless inquiry into the 2012 attack on a U.S. compound (previous, serious investigations had entirely covered the ground).
Given the seriousness of the incoming Democratic committee chairmen, there is a good chance for hearings of substance. Here are some of the topics I'd like to see them take on:
1. Russia. Don't get in the way of the Mueller investigation. But now that Trump has fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions, any threat to Mueller and his work should be prime material for hearings.
2. North Korea. It's time to query Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – and experts on North Korea — over the present and likely future of negotiations to get Kim Jong Un to give up his nuclear weapons. Trump keeps insisting that great progress has been made, but in reality, there has been zero progress toward convincing Pyongyang to denuclearize. This speaks to the risk of Trump's conviction that his personal negotiating skills with despots can deliver miracles, something he has so far failed to prove with China's Xi Jinping, the Saudi Crown Prince, Putin, or Kim.
3. Saudi Arabia – and the Yemen war. Let's delve into whether first son-in-law Jared Kushner's bromance with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has brought the benefits Trump promised. The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which mustn't be swept under the rug, is symptomatic of MBS' failure to live up to Trump's expectations, including as a bulwark against Tehran. Moreover, the United States has been dragged into supporting war crimes against civilians in Yemen, which are going to increase support for Iran and terrorism, not tamp it down.
4. Look into Trump's destruction of arms control accords with Russia and Iran, that are undermining prescribed limits on nuclear weapons that could lead to new arms races.
5. Although there are many more potential topics, including whither policy with China, I'd like to see a broad series of hearings that examined the underlying tenets of Trumpism, which resembles the nativist brand of nationalism that led nations into war 100 years ago.
As Trump heads off to Paris to celebrate the centennial of World War I's end, Americans should be made aware that Trumpian nationalism does not equate with patriotism. That may be too big a topic for a House committee, but I'd like to see them take it on.