James Lindsay and Carla Robbins discuss the results of the congressional races and how they will affect the U.S. foreign policy agenda.
Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, Council on Foreign Relations
Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
MCMAHON: Welcome, everyone, to today’s Council on Foreign Relations conference call on “The Foreign Policy Consequences of the 2018 U.S. Midterm Elections.” I’m Robert McMahon, managing editor of CFR Editorial. And I’ll be moderating this on-the-record call as we explore the Democratic Party’s capture of the House of Representatives, and how it could affect the conduct of U.S. foreign policy and national security.
We’re really fortunate to have as our expert guides today CFR’s Jim Lindsay and Carla Robbins. You have both of their bios, so I would just note that both Jim and Carla have long been sharp-eyed observers of the U.S. foreign policymaking process. Jim, who’s director of studies at CFR. He’s co-author with Ivo Daalder of the new and very timely book, The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership, which examines both the dramatic impact of Trump’s foreign policy and the causes of it. Carla’s a former award-winning journalist who leads a roundtable series at CFR on national security in an age of disruption.
I’m going to be kicking off the conversation with both of them. We’ll talk for about fifteen minutes and then open up the call to your questions.
And, Jim, I was going to start off with you and talk about—first of all, that foreign policy was not a dominant theme of this midterm, but could it be altered by the result?
Sorry, Jim, I’m not hearing you. Jim, are you there?
LINDSAY: Hello, Bob. Sorry. Yes, hi. I would say that you’re quite right that foreign policy didn’t figure prominently in the midterm elections. And I don’t think they’re going to have a significant impact on the substance of foreign policy going forward, though they may have a considerable impact on tone. I suspect you’re going to see a different conversation in Washington in the months to come precisely because the Democrats now control the House, which means they control committees. They get to control the committee agenda. They can conduct the investigations they like. And they can issue subpoenas. And so I would expect Democrats in a variety of committees—Oversight Committee, Intelligence Committee, Armed Services, Appropriations Committee, Foreign Affairs Committee to pursue issues that will challenge some of the things the Trump administration is doing.
But in terms of substance, I expect far more continuity than change, for at least three reasons. One is that foreign policy is decided to a considerable extent by the president. And President Trump, given his history, is a gentleman who tends to double down rather than back down on issues. I didn’t get the sense from his press conference today that he saw the loss of the House—(laughter)—as a repudiation as either himself or his policies. In fact, he did exactly the opposite. He declared a win. I do think that it is a case that the president’s domestic legislative agenda is going to be in trouble on Capitol Hill, precisely because the party in control of the House changed. But I think it’s been pretty obvious over the past few years, where we had unified Republican control, that Congress has a great deal of difficulty legislating in any event.
But going forward I would imagine it would be more tempting for the president to act in foreign affairs, given that he has greater discretion on that score. And there are many issues in foreign policy for which he has considerable passion. Again, second point is that I think things are going to look a lot like we see right now is precisely the inability of Congress to pass legislation. Now, that’s a primary way in which Congress can change what it is that an administration does. But, again, Congress has this difficulty passing legislation and faces the very real prospect that you would have to overcome a presidential veto—particularly on any major issue that would really threaten what the president has to do. And I’ll just note, in the past thirty-three years Congress has overridden exactly one presidential veto on foreign policy.
Third point I would just make is that—and this is something I think gets overlooked—is that on Capitol Hill there’s actually still some bipartisanship on a number of issues. I think if you looked on the issue of Russia, even when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, a great deal of hostility toward President Putin and his policies, and a great deal of skepticism of the president’s policies. And that led Congress to pass additional sanctions.
Likewise on China, I think you have a case where Democrats as well as Republicans are greatly concerned about Chinese predatory trade practices. And I don’t think the election is going to change that.
And finally, on issues like spending on the State Department, the Trump administration proposed very significant cuts to the State Department’s budget. And the Republican-controlled Congress blocked those cuts, and I would expect the same to hold as Democrats take control of the House.
MCMAHON: Jim, just a quick follow-up on another issue, which is kind of a cross-cutting domestic/foreign-policy issue, and that is immigration, and in particular the—I guess the run-up to the elections, the extraordinary series of events, and comments by the president involving this group, this so-called migrant caravan that was in Mexico, and then calling active-duty troops to the border, calling it an invasion and, as you indicated, not backing down but doubling down on that description.
I mean, is there—do you see any role in terms of a Congress coming in that some members who might have been elected because people found that kind of approach distasteful? Do you see any sort of way that Congress would influence that sort of either rhetoric or the actual actions at the border?
LINDSAY: Well, I would expect, Bob, that the fight is going to continue. Even when Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate, the president was unable to get funding for the wall, certainly to the extent that he wanted. He made a pitch for more spending on the wall in his press conference today. But it’s hard to imagine that the Democratic-controlled House is going to be willing to support that initiative.
By the same token, I don’t expect that we’re going to have any progress on real immigration reform. This is an issue that Congress has struggled with and been unable—(audio break)—on for, it seems, more than a decade now. So I think that the fighting on that and the finger-pointing is going to continue in the run-up to the presidential election in 2020. And it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s a major issue when Americans go back to vote again.
MCMAHON: Thanks, Jim.
Carla, I wanted to turn to you to follow up on something Jim referenced, which was this turnover of committee chairmanships. I think he mentioned Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, Intelligence.
Could you talk a bit about what that actually involves in terms of some of the individuals involved, what some of their oversight functions might be on specific cases, or the ones that we should watch for most?
ROBBINS: So this is where—OK, I must admit that, as a journalist, this is where the fun comes in, or at least where the spectacle comes in.
As Jim said, there’s not a lot that the Democrats can do, but they can certainly—there’s a lot they can demand to find out about, because they will have the investigatory power. And so—and they will use it. They will certainly use it. I think that from a political point of view the challenge for them is will they use it in a subtle way in which they actually represent the people and they ask questions that really legitimately need to be answered? Or are they going to—are we going to see another set of Benghazi-like hearings and they go overboard? Of course, obviously the impeachment question is there.
So do they do it in a responsible way or not? And do they—because the president was threatening them already today in his press conference and his tweets when he said, OK, you can go and investigate me, but I’m going to come back and investigate you. So this is—the game is already afoot.
So to directly answer your question, we don’t know exactly who’s going to take over these committees. Looking at the ranking members, it’s not inevitable that they will do that, that these people will rise, but likely they will.
On House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff has already served as ranking for four years, and there is a convention there that even if you serve four years, you don’t inevitably—that you don’t take over. But he has done such an extraordinary job as ranking, and he is very close to Pelosi, so—he’s from California—I would bet he will get it.
And he—I would bet he’s going to restart the Russian-election-interference probe; very frustrated with how Devin Nunes served the White House’s bidding on this, and he has a lot to say. He’s a former prosecutor. So I think he’s been very frustrated. I think he wants to do it.
But a lot of this also has to do with when the Mueller probe drops. He may not feel he’s going to push it that hard, certainly if we have an answer from Mueller. But that’s going to be—you know, that’s—I mean, watch that space. That’s a big one. There’s been a lot of very frustrated people there.
Oversight under Elijah Cummings, Justice under Jerry Nadler, may also investigate Trump and family members for alleged malfeasance, for questions of money laundering, the emoluments clause, the Trump hotels. You know, there’s a lot of allegations there about Russia money, a lot of people who want to get to the bottom of that. How far will they push it? You know, they certainly have the legal right to ask those questions, and there are a lot of people who have legitimate questions to ask there.
House Foreign Affairs, likely under Eliot Engel of New York. Certainly, legitimate hearings need to be held—this is the editorial write of me coming out—asking Secretary of State Pompeo, you know, to give explanations of what’s going on with U.S. policy toward North Korea. They just—you know, they just postponed or canceled another meeting here. We don’t know what happened in the Trump North Korea meetings. We don’t know what Pompeo was talking about. The president said at the press conference—
MCMAHON: That was—that was the meeting that was set up for this week, right?
ROBBINS: Yes. It was supposed to happen in New York, and it once again hasn’t happened. But the president was claiming great success again in the press conference. So this is what a secretary of state does. He comes up there and he explains what the policy is. He says what happened in his meetings. Certainly, I could expect that, as well as an explanation of what went on, you know, in the president’s meeting with Putin. The president’s going to be meeting again with Putin in Buenos Aires later this month, as well as with Xi Jinping. So a report expected from that the same way that, you know, the head of Armed Services could expect—Adam Smith—reports from Mattis about policies as well.
So as well as, you know, from the Foreign Affairs point of view, I think press to cut off support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, but it seems that the administration was going in that direction, although we haven’t heard as much about it lately. I think they are hoping that the uproar over the horrible, brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi was dying down. But, as Jim was saying, there’s a lot of support on the Republican side for that as well.
Press for implementation of sanctions. There’s decisions that have to be made particularly for the use of chemical weapons in Britain for the Sergei Skripal murder. Much tougher sanctions they’ve got to make a decision on according to, you know, the law that’s long passed—it long predates it, the Skripal murder—including, you know, serious banking sanctions. But that’s a bipartisan issue.
As Jim said, the Democrats are unlikely to fight Trump on tariffs or trade. Certainly, that’s closer to their heart.
House Armed Services under Adam Smith—not that Adam Smith, but another one—increased oversight on the use of the military on the border. He is opposed to the Space Force, which is the president’s near and dear, declaring dominance in space. And expect him to push back on plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to increase and modernize the nuclear arsenal.
And, finally—and there’s a lot more; we can talk about this—finally, they have to make a decision about the defense budget. The president has asked for every agency to come up with a five percent cut, but we also have the Budget Control Act of 2011. They keep kicking that down the road. At some point they got to make a decision. But one of the things that happened with the big increase in defense spending this year is that it’s now out of whack in the old fifty/fifty discretionary spending agreement. Expect the Democrats to insist at least—at the very least that domestic spending is fifty percent of discretionary spending and defense spending is fifty—is fifty percent. And then the choice becomes: Do we increase the overall pie and increase the deficit even more? And I would predict that Republicans, when they are out of power in the House, may become deficit hawks again.
MCMAHON: It’s worth noticing that—noting that previous Budget Control Act you mentioned was the product of a previous flip in the—in the House, going from Democrat to Republican, and what ensued was a great deal of stalemate and delay over budget-making. So we have, like, some other potential budget standoffs looming, potentially, according to what you’re saying.
I wanted to ask one follow-up question, Carla, which is on the composition of the incoming members of the House. Extraordinary number of women, I think an historic number of women; more than one hundred, many of them Democrats. Could you talk a little bit about the extent to which that would change the dynamic and the functioning at all, and in the foreign policy, you know, prerogatives, maybe, of the House membership?
ROBBINS: I think really the question is the extraordinary number of veterans and women veterans, and I think that’s—and Democrat—veterans on the Democratic side, people who’ve got real street cred on issues of foreign policy and national security. And I think that’s all—it’s great. It’s great to see people with this experience out there who can certainly help make decisions because there’s nobody like people who have heard shots fired in anger to make responsible decisions on questions like this. So, for me, I’ve never been really a believer that, you know, gender defines your decisions on foreign policy and national security, but I think it’s really great that we have so many people with real expertise, certainly frontline expertise, joining the ranks of Congress.
MCMAHON: All right. Well, Jim and Carla, thanks for framing that for us.
At this time I’d like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. So this is a reminder this conference call is on the record. And I would ask that you limit yourself to one question and keep it concise so that we can allow as many people as possible to speak. There’s a lot of people on this call.
So, operator, do we have an initial question for Jim and Carla?
OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time we will open the floor for questions.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
Our first question will come from Rachel Oswald with Congressional Quarterly.
Q: Hi. Thank you for doing this call.
What prospects do you see for a(n) AUMF getting offered in the House that gets taken up by the Senate, and for any War Powers resolution that gets offered in the House related to ending military support for the Saudi coalition in Yemen?
MCMAHON: Jim, you want to kick that one off, please?
LINDSAY: Certainly. I think the prospects of the passage of any AUMF are pretty slim. And they’re slim because while there may be widespread agreement that the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force need to be updated, there’s a lack of consensus on what should replace it. So I would not expect the AMUF (sic; AUMF) to move forward.
The only thing that could potentially change that is if the administration made it a priority to devise, in conjunction with Congress, a successor AMUF (sic; AUMF). But I don’t see that as a high probability.
ROBBINS: Can I just—I’m sorry.
LINDSAY: Go ahead.
MCMAHON: Sorry. Follow up, please.
ROBBINS: No, I was just going to—I was just going to add to that, you know, that on the Democratic side is that the Democrats are, you know, profoundly going to be split on the use of military force, and you—because you’ve got progressives elected and then you’ve got more middle-of-the-road Democrats. And you saw this before when Obama wanted an AUMF, and a lot of the division wasn’t between Democrats and Republicans; it was between Democrats and Democrats on the definition of whether you’re going to use an AUMF as an authorization for further use of military force or a way to stop it. So I would expect Democrats to eat their own on that fight.
LINDSAY: And just to the question about Yemen, I would expect that Yemen may become the subject of House Foreign Affairs Committee or subcommittee hearings which will likely be critical of U.S. policy. But again, I don’t see the political forces lining up where Congress is going to be able to compel a change in U.S. policy toward Yemen or its support for Saudi Arabia.
MCMAHON: Thanks for that question.
Operator, do we have another question, please?
OPERATOR: Yes. Our next question will come from Charles Johnston with Citibank.
Q: Hi. Thank you for doing this call.
Sort of two questions. One, I think Carla said that she saw the Democrats more or less in sync with the president on trade. Wondering if she thinks, therefore, the Democrats will support the president’s request for approval of the USMCA agreement.
And then, secondly, do you think the Democrats will continue or allow Trump to continue to use Section 232 in a way that is effectively alienating many of our strategic allies?
ROBBINS: I’m not an expert on what power the Congress has on presidential discretion on the use of the national security clause.
But on the first one, I would think that nobody really wants the disruption that would happen if you didn’t have an approval of NAFTA 2.0. So I have to assume that that’s going to go through.
LINDSAY: Well, if I may, I would offer two points on this. One is that—and Carla’s correct that USMCA is likely to go ahead, but that doesn’t—in part because many, but not all Democrats are sympathetic to the president’s view on trade, and because there are elements in the USMCA that appeal and have been called for by Democrats. And our colleague Edward “Ted” Alden’s written about this. And you can find his analysis on CFR.org. But that doesn’t mean that there can’t be a lot of wrangling over the so-called implementation legislation that Congress will actually be voting on. So I think for there, you’re going to have to tune in and see what kind of specific disputes may arise as you try to translate this agreement that’s been negotiated into America domestic law.
Second thing, on the broader question of the use of the national security exemption, it is true that the Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations. However, over the last 70 years Congress has delegated considerable statutory authority to the administration, to the president. Now, for a long time the typical complaint on Capitol Hill was that president weren’t using his discretionary authority sufficiently to go after governments that were pursuing predatory trade policies. With President Trump, you have a very different situation, where you have a president that is very eager to use what are broad and vague discretions of statutory authority, to use them to their maximum to put tariffs on others.
And the history of foreign policy on Capitol Hill is that powers that are easily delegated away are very hard to reclaim, because the only way Congress can reclaim them is to pass new laws. And, again, those laws would be subject to a presidential veto, even if you could run the gamut on Capitol Hill. So the president’s going to continue to possess considerable discretionary authority on trade because that’s in isolation. And I would expect the president to use that authority.
MCMAHON: Jim, I’ll add to that. As you and you co-author Ivo pointed out in a piece—in your book, that even if Congress was completely changed to Democratic there would still be, as it pertains to China, a lot of similar sentiment as well. So in addition to the NAFTA 2.0, the U.S. moves against China which continue to, I think, ratchet up, seem like that’s—there’s not going to be great pushback against that.
LINDSAY: I mean, I would expect that you will have complaints from Democrats about the president’s specific tactics, but not that he has put China in the crosshairs of his attention. And, again, to go back to Charles’ original question, he’s quite right. The president’s approach, using the national security language in the trade act to justify tariffs on steel and aluminum—and the threatened to do them autos as well—has alienated a fair number of American friends and trading partners. And I would expect that to be criticized on Capitol Hill. But, again, I don’t see Congress at this point in a position to take back that power.
ROBBINS: And can I just say one thing, just from a political point of view, as they jockey for 2020. If you look at the wins last night, and the recouping that the Democrats made, they made them in—you know, in rust belt states. And certainly, you know, trade is not a popular issue there. And so for them, I can’t see the Democrats, who have never been big champions of free trade in the first place, as much as they may be concerned that, you know, Trump is alienating the Europeans, and maybe want to be concerned about something more alienating if he starts picking a fight or breaks his commitment to Justin Trudeau not to put tariffs on cars. But just the sheer politics of it, and looking—going into 2020, that map suddenly looks a little bit more favorable to them when they look about it. So I can’t see them suddenly getting—seeing the light on trade.
MCMAHON: All right. Operator, can we have another question, please?
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Deb Reichmann with Associated Press.
Q: Hi. Thanks.
How do you think the U.S. response to the Khashoggi incident is going to play out? And do you think that any changes in the Congress from yesterday is going to affect the way that response is made?
MCMAHON: Carla, why don’t we start with this one, and then to Jim? Or, Jim, if you’re ready to kick off?
LINDSAY: No, go ahead. I defer to Carla.
ROBBINS: No, Jim—no, Jim I’d prefer you go. (Laughs.) I mean, I’m sort of concerned that it is—you know, it’s a thing about Trumplandia, is that things that are—you know, that are front page news tend to fade in the next, you know, crisis, after crisis, after crisis. That was receiving an enormous amount of attention, and it seems to be fading away right now.
The administration was going to push for a change in Yemen policy particularly, which seems to be a result of it. The Turks seem to be determined to keep it alive. But Trump is determined to maintain his close relationship with the Saudis. So are the Saudis going to cut back a little bit on the power of MBS? Are they going to really follow through on the Yemen thing? I don’t see it, but I could be wrong. I will defer to Jim on that. But right now I’m sort of concerned that the pressure is waning.
LINDSAY: I would just echo what Carla has to say. The president has communicated that he has made a major strategic bet on the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. The horrific murder of Mr. Khashoggi has not changed that. And I would expect the committees in a Democratic House to investigate or hold hearings on Mr. Khashoggi’s death, but I wouldn’t expect them to alter the White House policy. And the policy toward Saudi Arabia is definitely going to be set in the White House, not on Capitol Hill.
ROBBINS: But there is—I mean, and you had mentioned that before, Jim, which is there is certainly a great deal of disgust finally on the Hill and within the public that pays attention to these things about the war in Yemen, which is the most horrific manmade humanitarian disaster.
And when you have something like the secretary of defense coming out and saying we only provide a very small percentage of refueling support for the Saudis, and Mattis is now on the record with that, there is a sense of defensiveness about it.
And so what we don’t know is how much we’re getting pushback within the Pentagon to back away from what is clearly an incredibly bad optic, an incredibly horrifying, you know, horrifying war, and not good for the Saudis either. So one could justify it, at a minimum, if the president wants to prop up MBS and prop up the kingdom, that it’d be doing them a favor to get them out of Yemen.
So maybe, at a minimum, the death of Khashoggi will lead to some sanity in Yemen. I don’t see it yet, but let us hope for that.
LINDSAY: Your observation, Carla, hints at or touches upon a possibility, which is interactive effects; that, to the extent that there are people in the administration who are skeptical of a policy, whether it’s Yemen or otherwise, that they might use growing criticism on Capitol Hill for administration policy to try to push forward changes. That’s—there’s a long history of that in American foreign policy.
I can’t gauge how likely it is to happen on Yemen or any other issue, but it’s certainly within the realm of possibility, which is why these investigations, the hearings, putting a spotlight on administrative decisions and policy choices, is important, even if Congress isn’t likely to mandate changes itself.
MCMAHON: Thanks for that question.
Operator, do we have another question, please?
OPERATOR: Yes. Our next question will come from William Davis with OECD.
Q: Hello. Thanks for putting this together so quickly. And I just want to maybe direct this at Carla.
I think perhaps when you were going down your list of committees and who would switch from ranking to chair, forgive me if I missed it, but I didn’t hear mention of the Appropriations Committee. And given the administration’s initiatives to reduce international spending by almost a third in their initial two budgets, I’m wondering how you see those dynamics playing out perhaps in this new Congress.
And, of course, Jim, I would welcome your thoughts as well, particularly if there’s a new ardor amongst the Republicans for addressing the deficit.
ROBBINS: Well, Nita Lowey is expected, you know, to—in line to take over Approps, and—from Westchester. (Laughs.)
And, you know, I certainly—I think the sort of critical thing here, more than anything else, is not the Democrats. I think it’s Pompeo, and who is a man who didn’t like the State Department before he got there, and now he likes it. So he’s not—he has already made clear that he doesn’t want to slash his own budget, so—and the president seems to like him more than he likes anybody else in the Cabinet. So one has to assume that he is going to try to fight for that tiny little budget, such as it is. Now, what the implications of that is for foreign aid I can’t tell you.
MCMAHON: Jim, anything to add?
LINDSAY: I would expect we’re going to have pretty much the status quo when it comes to spending for foreign aid in the State Department. As I noted in my opening remarks, the Trump administration has tried twice now to reduce spending for the State Department, and that was rejected, and it was rejected when Republicans controlled both chambers. So I would expect that attitude to continue.
MCMAHON: Though they have cut back on some U.N. peacekeeping and the Palestinian refugee agency funding, but those are a little bit separate boxes.
LINDSAY: On the macro level—
ROBBINS: Although, Bob, you—no—yes, sorry Jim.
LINDSAY: No, I’d just say—I’ll just note on the—on the macro level the State Department and foreign aid overall has done far better than one would have expected, given the administration’s proposals and given the fact that Republicans controlled both chambers. And I’ll note that on the Senate side Lindsey Graham, I believe, is likely to continue as chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Ops, and he’s been pretty clear for the past two years about the importance of continuing to spend on diplomacy and foreign aid.
ROBBINS: So you don’t think Lindsey Graham is going to be the attorney general in the next two weeks, is what you’re telling me? So that’s assuming he’s still there.
But, you know, there is something to consider here, which is when—Bob mentioned U.N. peacekeeping. And with Nikki Haley leaving the U.N., and with John Bolton reigning at the White House, I would expect that the support that she managed to protect for U.N. funding and for the reform agenda and for the temporary bromance that existed between Guterres and the president probably not to last. And so we’ll probably see a further cutback in U.N.—in U.N. programs, and a lot more assertive activity and negative activity toward the U.N. to unfold now. And there’s nothing that the Dems can do about that.
Operator, do we have another question, please?
OPERATOR: Yes. Our next question will come from Michelle Caruso with CNBC.
Q: Hey. Thank so much for doing this.
You actually answered my question. It was about the USMCA. But you mentioned one particular author and writer on the CFR website that we should look at. Could you repeat that?
LINDSAY: Edward “Ted” Alden, A-L-D-E-N.
Q: Thank you.
LINDSAY: If you go to his expert bio page, he wrote a piece on why Democrats can find a lot to like in the USMCA. It has a lot to do with the rules about minimum wage for Mexican workers.
Q: Terrific. Thank you.
MCMAHON: OK. We’ll take another question, operator.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Olivia Tripathy (ph) with MIO Partners.
Q: Hi. Thank you for doing this.
My question is—I think it was not mentioned in the introduction. Your comments on the president’s recent take on the 14th Amendment, and with Democrats in the Congress now how would that—how likely or unlikely that is to happen. And if it is likely, to what extent. Thank you.
LINDSAY: Well, the president was asked in today’s press conference about this issue of birthright citizenship, and if I understood him correctly he didn’t signal anything to suggest he’s going to retreat from it. Ultimately, if the president were to sign an executive order, I would expect that to be litigated, and that’s where a substantial amount of the focus of the conversation would be. I would also expect that the relevant House committees would hold hearings on that matter.
I don’t know, it’s probably unlikely that Congress would be in a position to pass legislation that could survive any presidential veto. But I—so I would expect much of the activity to be in the courts rather than on Capitol Hill, even noting the holding of hearings.
ROBBINS: Although, you know, Lindsey Graham, after the president first said it in that Axios interview, and, you know, Lindsey Graham in an instant came out and said he was going to introduce legislation to end birthright citizenship. So now with the Dems in charge of the House, obviously that’s not going to go anywhere. So while the Democrats can’t do anything in the positive, you know, the notion—and who knows whether Lindsey Graham really meant this or it was just part of his interview for—his employment interview to be attorney general which is my theory. But that’s obviously not going to go anywhere, from a proactive point of view.
MCMAHON: OK. Thanks for the question. Operator, do we have another one, please?
OPERATOR: Yes. Our next question will come from Adam Schwarz with Asia Group Advisors.
Q: Hi. Good afternoon. Thanks for doing this call so shortly after the elections.
I had two questions, one of which you’ve already addressed, which is really about what we might see in changes in trade policy towards Asia, China in particular. And I think I heard both of you say that we’re not going to likely see much change there in this kind of move towards what appears to be an economic containment strategy emerging vis-à-vis China through trade deals is likely to continue. A follow-up question, which is really about the form in which that is going to happen. And do we see, based on what happened yesterday, any shift back towards the use of moral multilateral mechanisms and multilateralism in general? Or are we likely to see, as the administration has pushed in the last two years, kind of a pretty exclusive focus on bilateralism in our trade conversations with Asian countries, and with Asian generally? Thank you.
MCMAHON: It came through a little bit scratchy, but were you able to hear that Jim or Carla?
LINDSAY: Yes. I was able to hear the question. Thank you for the question, Adam.
I would say yes, on the—your first point. Trade policy is likely to continue in the form that it has been. The president is going to be sharply critical of China. I think he intends to maintain the tariffs. The big unknown for everyone is what is the deal the president’s trying to seek? As you know better than anyone, Adam, it’s a discussion about whether the president is simply focused on the bilateral trade amount, whether this is fundamentally about Chinese theft of intellectual property, whether it’s about the much broader issue of the organization of the Chinese economy and its subsidies for state-owned enterprises and the whole issue of China 2025, or whether fundamentally what’s driving the administration is a desire to indeed link the U.S. and Chinese economies for security reasons. And there’s a lot of speculation about who in the administration holds which views. And I don’t think we have a really clear sight as to where the president comes down on all of this.
I would say specifically about the issue of the form in which this takes place, you know, the president has campaigned for—campaigned for years on the idea that bilateralism is much better than multilateralism. My book with Ivo, The Empty Throne, goes into this at some length. The president’s very consistent. And I don’t see anything in yesterday’s election results that would lead the president to believe that he should change the way he’s approached it. That, of course, contains a great irony, because the president all along had argued on the campaign trail that our friends and allies didn’t do enough, and he was going to make them do more. But surprisingly, on this issue of China, he has basically dismissed efforts by some of our trading partners to help us, saying that we can handle it fine just by ourselves. And I would expect that policy attitude to predominate going forward.
MCMAHON: All right. And just a reminder, this is a CFR on-the-record conference call on “The Foreign Policy Consequences of the 2018 U.S. Midterms.”
Operator, do we have another question, please?
OPERATOR: Yes. Our next question will come from Arlene Getz with Reuters.
Q: Hi. Yes. Thank you.
So you mentioned Saudi Arabia as being a case where Congress was not likely to break with the White House. I wonder if there are any other cases where you think this might happen, if not necessarily—well, perhaps in the Senate, where there might be some newly emboldened senators who now are no longer at risk of losing their—feel they’re no longer at risk of losing their seats? So, you know, might they be breaking with Trump on sanctions on Iran, for example, or his approach to Russia or North Korea?
MCMAHON: Carla, do you want to take that first?
ROBBINS: You know, I don’t—I mean, first of all, there are—as Jim said before, there were members of Congress in both houses and in both parties who have broken with the president on sanctions on Russia quite consistently and who have been reasonably skeptical about North Korea.
I think they want—I think the main thing on North Korea is going to be a desire to know what is going on, as we all would like to know what is going on. So I think we’re going to see that.
And—but I think on sanctions with Russia, you know, that’s—John Bolton was in Moscow and, when asked about the chemical-weapons sanctions, which could potentially be quite biting on Russia—the banking sanctions and a variety of other things—he said, you know, we’ll see whether they’ve improved their behavior. And he said we’re still considering what we may be obligated to do under a statute on the potential for additional sanctions.
And so it sounds like they’re trying to buy more time, trying to temporize. And I think they’re going to find from both Republicans and Democrats not a lot of patience on the Russia subject. So I don’t think it’s a question of safe seats or not. I think there’s been a consistent position of skepticism toward the Russians, which will continue.
On Iran, you’re not going to find a lot of champions of Iran in the Democratic Party. There never were. And they’re certainly not going to be going. I mean, Obama had a pretty hard sell on the Iran nuclear deal within his own party. So I don’t think that’s going to shift either. I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of people pushing, and I don’t think they could succeed in pushing Trump to get back into the Iran deal.
Jim, anything you want to add to that?
LINDSAY: I agree with what Carla said. I would only note that on a number of these issues, like Yemen, you already have critics of administration policy. And the issue is still going to be, even with Democrats controlling the House, their inability to translate their criticism into substantive law that directs the president or constrains the president. Again, criticism, but the real problem is how do you turn that into something that compels the administration to change its behavior?
ROBBINS: I mean, Lindsey Graham pledged to, quote, sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia in the middle of October. But as I said, you know, whether or not that level of passion continues, it seems that you haven’t heard a lot, you know, from him about it, as far as I can tell, since then. We’ll see.
The Democrats’ ability to hold hearings and to demand that members of the administration explain policy, explain what they know, what they’ve heard from the Turks, what they’ve heard from the Saudis, that could hold more account, certainly on the subject of Yemen. And perhaps people who want to disagree even within the president’s own party would be given more room to act with more information. But whether they could force Trump to act unless it grabs great, you know, public outcry, I don’t see it happening.
MCMAHON: All right. Arlene, thanks for that question.
Operator, do we have another question, please?
Q: Yes. Our next question will come from Sarnaz Vashi (ph) with The Wall Street Journal.
Q: Hi. Thank you for having this briefing.
Some of my questions on Iran and the U.N. were answered, but I’d like to get more thoughts on Iran and whether you think, if not a change of policy, do you think that there will be a little bit more of a push to grant more exemptions for the Europeans? Will the Europeans have more allies in the Democratic-held Congress? And if you think it will have any impact on U.N. funding and engagement with U.N. agencies.
MCMAHON: Jim or Carla, which one would like to take that first?
LINDSAY: Well, Carla, you want to do the U.N. issue, since you’ve already spoken slightly to it?
ROBBINS: Listen, I think a lot of this has to do with who gets, you know, the ambassadorship, unless it’s happened and I missed it. All the talk is it’s going to be Heather Nauert. And I just don’t see—Nikki Haley was a pretty reasonable champion for the U.N. within an administration that is usually skeptical of all multilateral organizations. And that was at a period of time before John Bolton was so powerful, you know, before he was in the national security adviser’s position. We all know how he feels about the U.N.
I don’t—I think all of this spells bad things for the U.N. and for U.S. funding and U.S. relations with the U.N. I don’t think things are going to get better. And the Democrats don’t have any power to do anything once again other than to hold hearings.
And if you look at American polling, Americans generally tend to like the U.N., but it’s not a salient issue for them, no one’s going to be voting over the U.N., so I don’t see this as anything but, you know, things will likely get worse rather than better for the United Nations. And that has nothing to do with the elections.
On Iran, you know, we talked about that before. There are very few champions for Iran in the Democratic Party. And the things that the president has asked for have been championed in the past by members of the Democratic Party. They can hold hearings if there are people who are skeptical of the president’s policy.
I think, in terms of exemptions, that’s sort of a level of micromanaging that even from the Democrats you’re unlikely to hear. I think you will hear great concern about what the president is doing to relationships and what it’s doing to our relationship with NATO. And there will be hearings about how the president is damaging America’s standing in the world. But on that, I will defer to my colleague Jim since he just wrote an entire book about it.
LINDSAY: Well, I actually want to go back to a point, a very good point Carla made in her opening remarks.
ROBBINS: Look, I just did such a good handoff to you about your book. (Chuckles.)
LINDSAY: And I appreciate the handoff on the book, but I want to go back to that broader point you made at the beginning because I think it is worth emphasizing, which is Democrats have a macro decision to make, and that is, what do they want to spend their investigatory hearing calories on? What are the issues that they want to put under a spotlight?
And it’s not obvious that issues like Iran, which splits many Democrats, is where the Democrats are going to put their time and effort, particularly when the only way they can really affect an outcome is by passing legislation that they know has virtually no chance of passing. So I think that they’re going to be looking at issues where they’re more likely either to be able to get Republican support—think Russian behavior—or where they think that they can uncover information that will change the tone of the public debate, and that could be doing hearings on how the administration put young children behind bars at the border, it could be investigation into the emoluments issue or support that the Trump organization got from outside investors, and what have you.
I do also think you will probably have the House Foreign Affairs Committee hold hearings looking at this big question—from Carla’s handoff to me—about how the United States has been alienating its friends and allies. What are the consequences for American security and prosperity for the United States to sort of throw off the mantle of leadership it’s exercised for seventy years, to turn and call some of its closest friends and allies foes, but to make nice with countries that are our adversaries and that oppose our interests elsewhere? So I can see more hearings on that than I can on the question of whether or not we can somehow get an exemption for the Germans on some aspect of sanctions on Iran.
MCMAHON: And I would just jump in with a—with a news announcement that maybe I can get some instant response from both of you on, which is that Jeff Sessions has resigned at the request of Trump. This is being—a bulletin by a lot of the big news agencies. And it raises instant questions about, obviously, the probe, the special prosecutor’s probe into—
ROBBINS: Oh my God.
MCMAHON: —Russian interference. So just, you know, briefly—not to put you on the spot, Jim and Carla—but to the extent that, you know, the change and the midterm results have any bearing on what happens next, if you could just sort of mention the context of a—of a government change and a new—and Sessions being replaced.
LINDSAY: Several immediate reactions. Number one, this obviously, Bob, is going to become a heated political issue. How heated is going to be a function of who the president selects, because everybody understands that the new attorney general will have a say about the future of the Mueller investigation. And President Trump, in his description of what he—how he thinks an attorney general should function, is at odds with sort of traditions about how an attorney general functions. So that’s going to be a big political debate.
Number two, I would imagine that the president has a bigger cushion than he did previously because Republicans look to be adding at least two, maybe as many as four, seats in the Senate, when everything is said and done. And the president will be able to make the argument to Republicans that those Republicans who stood close to him did better and those that didn’t lost. That was the argument he made at his press briefing today.
Third thing I would note that in terms of the Mueller investigation, one of the big consequences of the switch in House control yesterday is going to be that if there were an attempt to shut down the Mueller investigation, one would imagine the Democrats would both resist it, but also use their subpoena and investigatory power to make sure they could investigate how it came about and to have access to whatever reports Mr. Mueller has compiled, so nothing would disappear under lock and key.
ROBBINS: And so you would have both the House Intelligence Committee, which could pick up an investigation, Mueller, anybody else who participated in the investigation could come along, even if they were suddenly out of their job. And you could also have investigations with the Justice Committee looking at obstruction of justice questions. This is—this is the difference, because the House—because of its investigatory powers, and also its subpoena power, could—it wouldn’t be a substitute, obviously, for Mueller. But it’s very often the cover up rather than the crime. And if they were to shut it down, you would see, I think, the House looking down at the—looking at the shutdown as much as it would be looking at the Russia thing. So I would—as much as they—we can talk about how far they’re going to push the Russia investigation with Mueller investigating it. But if Mueller is out there, expect it to perhaps seize the House more than anything else.
LINDSAY: And there’s also one other unknown that we have to admit to, which is we don’t have any idea what timeline –
ROBBINS: Mueller’s working on, yeah.
LINDSAY: Mueller is on, as to when he’s going to release a report, or what that report will say. So there are a bunch of other factors that we don’t know how they’re going to play out and how they interact with these things. So it’s pretty easy to imagine a wide array of scenarios. And I wouldn’t set on any one just yet.
ROBBINS: Although, we do know that one of the things that Mueller was investigating was precisely Trump’s discussions about firing Sessions. So quite interesting.
LINDSAY: Well, we don’t know what conclusions he’s reached, so.
MCMAHON: And that actually brings us to the end of this call. I want to thank, first of all, everybody on our call for great questions as we walk through the possible foreign policy consequences of the midterm results. Also, great—huge thanks to Jim Lindsay and Carla Anne Robbins for helping us navigate what happens in Congress now with the new mix of power.
That concludes this Council on Foreign Relations on-the-record conference call. Thank you, everyone.
ROBBINS: Thanks, Bob.
LINDSAY: Thank you, Bob. Thank you, Carla.
ROBBINS: Thank you, Jim.