A Conversation with Senator Chris Van Hollen: Can a Polarized Congress Check President Trump?

Tuesday, May 21, 2019
U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen on Capitol Hill. The Washington Post/Contributor
Chris Van Hollen

U.S. Senator from Maryland (D); Member, Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs; @ChrisVanHollen

Michael R. Gordon

National Security Correspondent, Wall Street Journal

Senator Chris Van Hollen discusses the successes and failures of bipartisan efforts in Congress to check President Trump on crucial foreign policy issues, including Russia, North Korea, China, and Turkey.

GORDON: So, I am not the speaker tonight, in case you’re wondering. My name is Michael Gordon. I’m from the Wall Street Journal. And I’m here to introduce the speaker of the night, Senator Chris Van Hollen. And he’s a member of a number of really important committees. I looked it up—budget, environment, banking, appropriations, and on the Subcommittee on Foreign Operations. And I think for those of us who follow the debate in Washington, he’s an important voice on foreign policy. And I was reading a lot of his articles in recent days. And he’s had thoughtful things today on everything from Russia policy, North Korea, China, arms control. And interestingly, he’s written some of these articles with his colleagues on the Republican side of the aisle. And he’s going to be—speak for about ten minutes or so. I’m going to engage in a conversation for twenty minutes or so, and then open it up to you for questions.

And his theme, I think, is an interesting and a provocative one, “Can a Polarized Congress Check President Trump?” I think the cynics in the room would probably say no, but I think he probably has a different perspective and a subtler view of this. So with that, I’d like to welcome the senator to take the stage and give his presentation. (Applause.)

VAN HOLLEN: Well, thank you to Michael Gordon. Thank you to the Council on Foreign Relations for the invitation to be here. And to Michael Gordon, thank you not only for participating here, thank you for your excellent and consistent reporting over decades. That’s supposed to mean you ask me some nice easy questions. But I told Mr. Gordon that I’d been following his writing for many, many, many years—long before I was a member of Congress, and instead working on foreign policy issues. It’s great to be with you. I’m—as I came in, I saw many dear friends and colleagues that I’ve worked with over the years, including, of course, my best friend, my wife Katherine, who is here and is the resident foreign policy expert in our family. And I’m going to—I’m going to keep my remarks brief, because I look forward to the questions.

I think everybody in this room knows, and I’m starting at first principles here, that under Article 2 the president of the United States, the executive, has very broad and deep powers within the area of foreign policy and national security. That’s the structure of the Constitution. However, our Constitution makes sure those are not unlimited powers. And Congress, when it wants to, can assert a lot of power and influence in shaping foreign policy and national security. The key part of that phrase was: when it’s willing to do so. Having served as a staff member on the Hill long before I thought of running for elected politics myself, where I met many of you, my sense is that over the last, you know, twenty-five years—it was the mid-1980s when I was on Capitol Hill—over those last many years, Congress’ willingness to act as an independent body to check the president has diminished considerably. It’s always sorted of waxed and waned, but it’s been diminishing over time.

And that’s coincided with a rise in political polarization, where you see more and more members of Congress, House and Senate, voting with the president of their party, almost akin to a parliamentary type system, as opposed to a separate branch of government. Now, obviously politics has always played an important role in debates, and it’s one thing if you agree with the president of your party on a particular issue. But we’ve seen a lapse in the ability of and willingness of Congress to stand up for its own constitutional prerogatives, especially in the area of used of force. And that’s true, I think, more today than ever before, because you now have a president who has undeniably department from many of the principles that Republicans had held in the area of foreign policy. And yet, with a few exceptions, there’s an unwillingness to take on the president. And so it’s a particularly vivid example of members of Congress voting as rubber stamps as opposed to standing up as members of a separate branch of government.

Now, there are some important examples. I’m just going to tick off a couple because I still think it is the case that within the realm of foreign policy and national security Congress is still more willing to push back than they are on a lot of domestic policy issues, where there has been more of an alignment between, you know, the parties and the president—the views of the party in the majority in the Senate and the president. So what are some examples? And I agree with the comment Michael Gordon made, these are few are far between. The most effective example of pushback with respect to this administration came early on, right after the election in 2017, when Congress passed the CAATSA legislation, imposing sanctions on Russian oligarchs and creating the authority to impose sanctions on others. Yes, it was signed by the president, but clearly it was a grudging signing of the bill. The president and his team were not in support of the legislation. They tried to delay the legislation. So there is one example where Congress on a bipartisan basis took action, despite a president who was resisting that effort.

There are a couple other examples where I think it’s fair to say Congress has taken the lead. They’re not big blockbuster issues, but they’re on important issues. I’ve been very involved in the argument that we should not allow Turkey to get the F-35s, so long as they’re pursuing the S-400 Russian air defense system. And the administration was not there a year and a half ago. They are there today. And we are making sure that they’re there by working to codify that both in appropriations bills as well as in the National Defense Authorization Act. I hope—we want Turkey to get the F-35. I want to be very clear on this. They’re a member of NATO. We want them to be a good member of NATO. And we don’t think that getting the S-400 is being a good member of NATO.

We’ve pushed back importantly on the budget. And I serve on the Appropriations Committee, the Subcommittee on Foreign Operations. As know from the last two years, the Trump administration has proposed a budget with about 30 percent cut in military assistance, and to AID, and to ESF funding. And Congress has pushed back. You know, both Republicans and Democrats in both the House and the Senate have pushed back there. While I disagree with my colleague Senator Lindsey Graham on lots of issues, I do have to give him credit for being a strong voice for U.S. diplomacy and development assistance and military assistance around the world. So that is an area where I predict we will also be successful at pushing back again this year.

As you know, we had a bit of a skirmish with the administration on its Yemen policy. I should point that while I think it was important that Congress took a stand, we did get rolled at the end of the day by the administration. I will also point out that the reason I came up in the Senate, the reason Mitch McConnell had it come up in the Senate, was not by choice. It was triggered by the form in which this resolution came up, under the War Powers Act. So by using that vehicle, we forced a vote on that issue. My best guess is had we not done that we would never have taken that up in the Senate to begin with. And at the end of the day, when you look at the vote on the veto override, it was fifty-three senators in favor of the override, forty-seven against. So we didn’t come close. I think went sent some important signals. But in terms of the final result, obviously, we were not successful. And that’s even after the Khashoggi murder. The first time we voted on it, before the Khashoggi murder, it wasn’t even close—the first time around.

So those are a couple examples. Now, the area where I think we’ve been most negligent in not coming together as a bipartisan group is in protecting our elections and democracy going forward. There’s no excuse for not taking clear action now. And there are two big pieces of legislation that I think—that I know have bipartisan support. And the question is whether Mitch McConnell will schedule them for a vote in the United States Senate. One is a bill that I’ve introduced with Marco Rubio—Senator Rubio. It’s called the DETER Act. And it’s a very simple approach. It says to the Russians: If we catch you again meddling in our elections, there will be swift and severe sanctions. So the idea is to say up front what the consequences will be.

You know, my view is adding sanctions after the fact doesn’t usually accomplish our goals. It may be punitive, but if you want to try and influence behavior your best chance is to signal upfront what the consequences will be. And that’s what this bill does. It says that if the DNI, if the director of national intelligence, determines that there’s been an effort to interfere in our elections, and we define what that means, then you’ll have this guillotine coming down. So it changes the cost-benefit analysis for Putin. Right now it’s kind of cost free, any interference in our elections. This would make it clear that there’s a price to pay.


The other bill is—so that’s a sort of offensive deterrence effort. The other is on the back end, just trying to strengthen and harden our election systems. And there’s the Secure Elections Act. Senator Amy Klobuchar’s introduced it. I’m a co-sponsor. But my view is we need to take both those actions. You need to be sort of forward-looking and try to prevent any interference in the elections, and then you need to strengthen the backstop. So we are going to push very hard. We have strong bipartisan support for the DETER Act. It’s in the Banking Committee. We’re hoping to get a vote on that.

Let me just flag a couple big issues that are on the sort of horizon. And I will just stat what everyone in this room who’s worked on the Hill knows, and Constitution makes clear, that ultimately our strongest power is the power of the purse. And I serve on the Appropriations Committee, as I said. And I looked for opportunities to use that power of the purse. The F-35s is one example. In the House, where they’ve begun marking up their appropriations bills, they’ve used the power of the purse to push back on some of the administration’s effort to move forward with lower-yield nuclear weapons, which a lot of us believe would reduce the threshold of nuclear war.

So the administration’s proposed a low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile. They’ve also suggested that we go back to a sort of Tomahawk nuclear-armed cruise missile. So in the first case, the House recently said there are going to be no funds available for the submarine-launched low-yield nuclear weapon. And then the House attached some important conditions to the other request. The House has also said there won’t be any money to move forward with the Saudi 123 civilian nuclear agreement. I’m looking at something similar in the Senate. Certainly condition on them at least meeting the gold standard if we were to go forward there. So those are some things on the power of the purse.

Last point I will make relates to Iran. And we’re obviously faced with a very, very serious situation, rising tensions, maybe we’ve hit a little bit of a plateau, but I wouldn’t—there’s no reason for anyone to take comfort. I just came a couple hours ago from a—our classified briefing in the United States Senate. Obviously can’t get into the details, but let me just say, having read the public reporting carefully and having listened, we have to be very vigilant about a repeat of the politicization of intelligence that we saw in the lead-up to the Iraq War, and the claims of weapons of mass destruction. So I trust our intelligence agencies—sort of the rank and file. I worry every time that information gets filtered up through someone at the political level, especially when you have a national security advisor who previously indicated he wanted to bomb Iran. So that’s one thing we have to be very careful about. And of course, everybody in the press needs to be very vigilant about that. There was reporting, you know, back in the time of the Iraq War where the information that was reported wasn’t consistent with the facts on the ground.

The other big issue from a Congressional perspective, of course, is what can, or will, we do? And this gets to the issue of the authorization to use military force. Many of us have been concerned that Secretary Pompeo has kept open the possibility of using the 2001 AUMF that was designed to allow U.S. military force against al-Qaida and sort of its immediate, you know, successors and entities, suggesting—being ambiguous about whether or not that AUMF—2001 AUMF would apply to Iran. I don’t—I haven’t found a serious lawyer who would try to make that case, but the fact that they have not definitively made that statement worries me a lot.

Now, tomorrow in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senator Tom Udall may offer his resolution—I’m a co-sponsor of his resolution—essentially making it clear that we shouldn’t be using military force in Iran without congressional authorization. And then later this week, in the Armed Services Committee, I expect a Democratic senator, probably Senator Kaine, to offer a similar provision. And as all of you know, the NDAA bill has passed both houses of Congress and been signed by the president for a very long time. Not many bills have that kind of track record on the Hill. But the NDAA, National Defense Authorization bill, does have that track record. So if something could be attached that bill obviously it would have a higher survivability rate than other legislation. There’ll also be opportunities, as I said, on appropriation bills in the House and the Senate.

The challenge, of course, is NDAA, you know, it won’t pass for some time. And the appropriation bills, they won’t pass for some time either. So these are imperfect blunt instruments. But I do hope Congress will weigh in. And I hope Republicans will join us with respect to protecting, you know, congressional prerogatives and rights under the Constitution, especially with respect to the right to declare war. And, you know, it’s sometimes strange bedfellows on many issues, but Senator Rand Paul and Senator Mike Lee have been two Republican senators who have stood up for congressional prerogatives in this area in the past. So I was just talking to them before I came over here. But we’ll have to see how all of this shakes out.

So I’m going to end with that. Lots of big questions on those and many other issues. And I look forward to the conversation and to your questions. So thank you very much. (Applause.)

GORDON: So thank you for that. And we’re going to have a fifteen-minute discussion or so, and then open it up to the members and this group here, who I’m sure have—want the opportunity to ask questions of their own.

Let me just ask you a few questions about the foreign policy issues of the day. You touched on some of them. I know you can’t discuss classified details about the Iran briefing you received, but do you think from what you—from what you saw Iran was preparing for offensive action or was making defensive preparations in case hostilities erupted? And do you think it was appropriate to send an aircraft carrier battlegroup and a bomber taskforce to Al Udeid in the face of that intel? Was that prudent action or an overreaction?

VAN HOLLEN: So my interpretation of Iran’s actions has been that they were primarily in response to what they feared was going to be U.S. action. Certainly, a response to, you know, the maximum pressure campaign, the recent designations of the, you know, Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. I think you’ve reported, and others have reported that members of our military, including General Dunford, had serious concerns about the possible ramifications of doing that. And other measures we’ve taken to further squeeze Iran after we backed out of the JCPOA. So I think that Iran responded to that, to those actions. And I think much of what we saw was interpreting them to be potentially preparing for offensive actions.

That said, you know, Iran is being squeezed very hard. And, you know, they may be looking for ways to send signals to the Europeans especially that they can no longer tolerate the current situation. After all, the Europeans who stuck with the JCPOA, appropriately so in my view, have been pretty unable to provide Iran the kind of relief they want, which is why Iran just announced that within sixty days or so they may no longer comply with the, you know, low enrichment conditions.

So it’s a very dangerous situation. Prone for miscalculation. As to moving—so, look. Anytime we believe that U.S. forces may be attacked I think it’s appropriate for us to take action to deter that conduct. So, you know, I think it is important to send a signal to the Iranians, any effort through either direct, or, more likely, through your proxies, to attack U.S. forces will be met with serious consequences. The risk, of course, is miscalculation.

GORDON: So you mentioned the JCPOA. And many Democrats favor a return to the JCPOA. But if the—if a Democrat was elected president in the next administration, because of the JCPOA’s structured the way it is, some of its constraints relax over time. And, you know, when the agreement was concluded in 2015, that time seemed far away. But by the time, if there is a new president in 2021, it will come nearer. And I made a—took a look at some of the provisions of these talks that I covered. And the—first of all, the arms—the embargo on arms—arms embargo is lifted after five years, which is about the same time a new president comes in. Some of the constraints on manufacturing more advanced types of centrifuges is lifted after eight years. That would be six years into the agreement by the time the next—if a new president comes in.

And so some of Iran’s capacity to enrich would be expanded. And it would be—that wouldn’t be in the distant future. It’d be in the more immediate future. If the U.S. were to return to the JCPOA, as you favor, do you think it would return to it as it is, or do you think it should seek to renegotiate it with the Iranians?

VAN HOLLEN: So, let me just start by making the point that some lifting of those constraints years from now is certainly better than them being able to move out of it right now. In essence we’ve—since we’ve withdrawn from the agreement, they certainly have legal grounds for taking the action that they’ve proposed that they may take shortly. And so that—you know, their ability to ramp up is significant. The other thing I would point out is that the inspection regime, which has heighted IAEA inspection, is something that continues far into the future, if not indefinitely. And so at least we would have advanced warning. I mean, as you know, it was not a—it was an imperfect agreement, in the sense that it has some timelines. On the other hand, it did, by all accounts, raise the breakout period to lengthen it to a year. And with the inspection regime, which remains in place, we would be able to detect that, and then take whatever action we thought was warranted.

But I—look, I’m for trying to—so I would go back into the agreement. But I would also work to get Iran back at the table to discuss the regional issues, to discuss the ballistic—you know, the missile issue. I think all of that should be negotiated. But, as you know, the premise of the agreement was that a nuclear-armed Iran doing all those things was worse than a non-nuclear Iran doing those things.

GORDON: So, staying in the Middle East, there is a hearing not so long ago where you pressed Secretary of State Pompeo on the question of the West Bank, and annexation of the West Bank, and what the U.S. policy would be on that, and what the U.S. might do if Israel was to claim sort of legal sovereignty over portions of that territory. And you didn’t get a clear answer. What would you do?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, first, let me say I was astounded that the secretary of state could not answer a question about whether U.S. policy would endorse the unilateral annexation of the West Bank. As you know, that’s a great departure from bipartisan U.S. policy.

What would I do? I would make it very clear that the U.S. government position is the same as it has been in previous, you know, administrations—both Republican and Democrat. And I would, you know, try to use our ability to bring the power—the parties together. Now, look, I know this has been a long and unsuccessful road so far. But my main point here is that the only way to preserve a state of Israel that is both Jewish and democratic is to have a two-state solution. And therefore, even when you’re at a point where we don’t have a functional negotiating partner on the Palestinian side, we need to preserve the option of a two-state solution whenever conditions are ripe. And to the extent that—to the extent that Israel annexes the West Bank, continues further expansion of settlements in new areas, you eliminate the possibility of a two-state solution. And with that, I believe you eliminate the possibility of a Jewish state that is both democratic and observes the rights of all its people.

GORDON: So I’d like to ask you a final big question before opening it up on an arms control subject, in which Congress does play a role. So this is apropos to your theme of the need for Congress to reassert itself and maybe push back against executive overreach. The New START Treaty expires in February of 2021. So this is just weeks—if there’s a new president, it’s weeks after this president takes over. If it’s—President Trump is reelected, it’s immediately after that. And the fate of New START is entirely unclear. The administration is conducting a review. They’re—President Trump’s talked about a three-way negotiation that would embrace China, that many experts don’t think would probably make a whole lot of progress, and certainly in the time available.

Yet, arms control and strategic modernization, which has to be funded by the Congress, have gone hand-in-hand. What do you think the U.S. should do about New START? Should it opt for a new approach? Should extend the treaty? And what should Congress’ role be? Because Congress has to fund this $1.2 trillion strategic modernization program that is sort of the flipside of the arms control negotiation.

VAN HOLLEN: Yeah. So I’m a big believer that we should exercise the five-year extension provisions in the New START agreement, and that we shouldn’t wait around before we do that. There are going to be plenty of things we have to discuss with the Russians. And the time is already growing short. I think it’s a big mistake to hold that up and wait for China to come to the table. I’m not opposed to having a discussion with China about their military deployments in that region, but I think the figure I saw was 95 percent of nuclear warheads are in either the U.S. or the Russian arsenal. And so I think it doesn’t make a lot of sense to hold up that agreement.

Now nuclear modernization should proceed. I mean, there are going to be, you know, questions of exactly what you need and what you don’t ,but we should modernize our triad. Makes a lot more sense to do that, according to our military folks who have testified before Congress, when you have some certainty and predictability that the New START agreement would bring. It gets back to a point I was referring to earlier. I think Congress needs to be much more assertive with respect to the use of the power of the purse to try to achieve its goals. Now, you know, the challenge there is—and this is why Congress is a blunt instrument—there are different views—(laughs)—within the Congress, and certainly, you know, among Republicans and Democrats in the Senate. Although, I will say, in talking to most of my Republican Senate colleagues so far, that they would support an extension of the New START agreement.

GORDON: Well, a quick question on that before I open it up: There are a number of voices who say if you’re going to extend the agreement it should encompass not merely strategic weapons but tactical nuclear weapons, in which the Russians have obviously a clear advantage. In fact, I think that was in the resolution of ratification of New START. Certainly the more conservative Republicans would advocate that. Do you think that would be a good approach, or do you think a new arms control framework, maybe one that would be negotiated post-New START—should try to include all nuclear weapons, not merely the strategic nuclear weapons but the tactical weapons and some of these more exotic systems? Vladimir Putin keeps talking about underwater torpedoes and the like.

VAN HOLLEN: So I think that our best course of action for our own security purposes is to extend the agreement, for the reasons that, you know, the military chiefs have stated before the Congress—because it gives us the predictability that we need and also the visibility we need into the Russian forces and structures. Again, that said, I would welcome an opportunity to sit down, talk about tactical nuclear weapons. We finally have—you know, I remember back in the ’80s when you had Soviet conventional superiority in the theater. Now you have—NATO has, you know, stronger conventional forces but, you’re right, the Russians have more tactical nuclear weapons. But, again, I think that’s a conversation worth having. But, you know, my test is always: Is it in the national security interest of the United States to do something? And I think it is in our national security interest to extend New START for five years and have conversations on these other issues.

GORDON: OK. At this point we’re going to open it up to members of this group here. And I’m supposed to remind you that it’s on the record. And also, you know, when you state your question, please identify yourself and give your affiliation. And if you can just limit it to one question, unlike what people like myself do in press conferences, then we can have more questions.

OK, back there.

Q: Hi. Thank you. Rachel Oswald, reporter with Congressional Quarterly.

Senator, given your earlier remarks about preserving a two-state solution and the fact the Trump administration recently recognized the annexation of the Golan Heights, as well as bills that have recently advanced that would make it U.S. policy not to recognize the annexation of Crimea by Russia, is it good policy to put that in a legislation that the U.S. will not recognize Israeli annexation of the West Bank?

VAN HOLLEN: I’m sorry, could you repeat the question? I think—

GORDON: Let her repeat it.

Q: Is it a good idea for the Congress to pass a bill that would say it is U.S. policy not to recognize any Israeli annexation of the West Bank?

VAN HOLLEN: So let me be clear on my position. I strongly oppose the Russian annexation of Crimea. As I indicated, I also oppose the unilateral Israeli annexation of the West Bank, should they move in that direction. I would—I would welcome a bipartisan effort in Congress to make that very clear, that that’s the U.S. position. That has been the bipartisan position of presidents, Republican and Democrat, for a very long time. And I would welcome Congress, you know, continuing—making a statement that that is the continuing U.S. policy going forward. I would also, you know, point out that this is—can be a very tricky issue. I mentioned this before. But you look at the situation of the Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus. You know, when the United States gets in the position of recognizing the annexation of areas taken by force, it can be a very slippery slope from there.

GORDON: Back there.

Q: Good evening, Senator. Shaarik Zafar with Facebook, and also an adjunct professor at Georgetown.

Would welcome your thoughts, Senator, on Central America and the migrant crisis, and the importance of continuing foreign assistance. And do you think there’s any chance that Congress will be able to push back against the administration to make sure that important money keeps flowing to those governments as a way to address the migrant crisis?

VAN HOLLEN: I hope so. I mean, you know, it is obviously counterproductive to eliminate, you know, U.S. financial support for Central American countries. There’s always room for trying to better, you know, design sort of U.S. aid programs to accomplish our goals, but, you know, eliminating all support obviously only makes the situation even worse than it is. So I’m hoping that in this appropriations process you’ll see Congress continuing to make those funds available through ESF money, AID money. And, you know, we may need to sort of restructure some of the programs. But I think you’re going to see bipartisan resistance to that.

That being said, when it comes to the rest of immigration policies being practiced by this administration there is a deep political divide, obviously, on Capitol Hill. And every day, you know, there’s a new story coming out of the border. Obviously, it’s a serious situation. I will say that in this emergence relief bill that we’re working on we are trying to get a point where Congress can, on a bipartisan basis, provide emergency humanitarian assistance to support efforts at the border, and trying to separate that from the request that was made by the administration as part of this emergency bill for, you know, more ICE enforcement, and those kind of things. We’re trying to work our way through those issues as we speak. The goal is to try to pass something by this Thursday. We’ll see if that happens.

GORDON: Over there.

Q: Oh, thanks very much. Chris Wall at Pillsbury Winthrop.

On the subject of sanctions, and trade, and pushback from Congress to the executive. So, two things: DETER Act, you mentioned. Can you game out for us the trajectory do you think on the DETER Act with DASKA and with the House Financial Services bill that’s just been introduced in discussion form, and where that—where that might be headed in the next Congress? And also in the related area of national security and sanctions and so forth, an area where Congress has not pushed back on the president. And that is in connection with the 232 national security efforts to regulate trade. And there are two bills pending with Senators Portman and Senators Lee. And nothing seems to have happened with those. And yet, those are very important efforts to push back, if Congress chooses to do so.

VAN HOLLEN: Yes, no, I’m glad you raised that. So first, on the DETER Act, as you said, they are moving forward with a similar bill in the House Financial Services Committee. I think Maxine Waters just introduced that. And I expect that will, you know, move in the House, and I think that will put additional pressure on the Senate. Senator Crapo, the chairman of the Banking Committee, has—you know, he’s indicated that he’s willing to consider moving this forward. We have additional Republican co-sponsors by the day, including a number on the Senate Banking Committee. Last year, you may recall, Senator McConnell made some positive statements about the DETER Act. That was in the immediate aftermath of the Helsinki situation, where President Trump sided with President Putin on the issue of interference in the elections. So I think we’re going to have a major push to get that bill moving.

With respect to the trade issues, I mentioned in my comments, you know, a president who was departing in a radical way from traditional Republican foreign policy principles, with very little pushback. Now, I am familiar with the bill and the 232. I’m part of Senator Toomey’s bill that’s been introduced. I think that there’s been a gross abuse of the use of 232 authority, putting tariffs on Canada and other allies for so-called national security reasons. I find it a total abuse of power, which is why I’m a sponsor of that legislation. But Senator McConnell’s expressed no willingness, to my knowledge, to bring that up for a vote. I think if it came up for a vote it would pass. You’re going to have some differences on both sides of the aisle potentially on that bill, although a lot less—I think—I think there’s pretty much of a consensus. I’m pretty confident that would pass.

I think there’s a consensus that the 232 authority’s been abused. Different than, of course, actions being taken with respect to trying to protect ourselves from, you know, China’s unfair trade policies. Been very engaged in the debate over Huawei and ZTE. But that’s a different issue where there is a lot more consensus across both parties.

GORDON: Right there in the center.

Q: Hi, Hans Binnendijk, Atlantic Council. Michael, good to see you.

VAN HOLLEN: Hi, Hans, good to see you.

Q: So I’m going to ask you an unfair question, if I might. Foreign policy is generally not a major campaign issue, but this year it might be because President Trump and his administration may be vulnerable in a number of areas. So I wanted to get your general thought on whether that’s true, and then more specifically if you could identify three or four, five, six issues that—where you think he’s particularly vulnerable.

VAN HOLLEN: All right. (Laughter.) Well, first, it’s good to see you, Hans. Nice and soft.

So, first of all, unfortunately I think it remains true that foreign policy issues are hard to sort of be an attention grabber on the campaign trail. I mean, you know, people are going about their daily lives. They have the, you know, pressure of, you know, trying to make ends meet here, you know, school issues, all sorts of local issues and pressures on them. So it can be difficult to get people to focus, understandably difficult, on foreign policy and national security issues.

So, you know, the key is, of course, to try to make it clear how these all do relate to our security here at home. And I think that certainly the sort of randomness and haphazardness of the Trump foreign policy gives people a lot of concern. When you—you know, every couple months there’s a threat. Maybe you’re going to go to war with North Korea, then all of a sudden you’re best pals with Kim Jong-un, and then all of a sudden, you know, you’re talking about threatening Iran. So I think that—I think there’s the potential going forward to make this an issue that more people care about, because the consequences of leadership are more important than ever, in the sense that there’s not a steady hand, I think can lead to people’s understandable insecurity, feelings of insecurity.

The other big piece of this really relates to the trade issues. And I will say that, you know, during the campaign candidate Trump effectively used people’s feeling of being dispossessed, left behind by trade agreements, to his benefit. And when it comes to trade, he’s now sort of got people of different opinions, right? You’ve got a lot of farmers in the Midwest who had been Trump supporters who have already experienced a lot of economic pain from the tariffs, who, you know, a lot of them are still kind of giving the president a chance, but there’s a limit, at some point, to how much economic pain they will ensure before they give up on that strategy.

And so I think when it comes to trade issues, that will be front and center during the campaign. And I would—I would point out that when it comes to things like Huawei, it is very hard to get your—all your friends and allies to be on the same side as we are in pushing back against unfair trade practices by China, stealing intellectual property, and all sorts of other things, when we’re also—(laughs)—putting tariffs on those same allies. And so I think there’s a lot of, you know, room for discussion. And I think, you know, the president could be vulnerable on some of those issues as well.

So a lot of potential flashpoints, which we hope to avoid. But the president’s policies seem to be trying to stoke a lot of fires rather than—rather than put them out. So, again, I think—I think we will sort of see how all these shape up during the campaign. They have the potential to be important issues. Sorry, I didn’t get all three or four.

GORDON: We’ll go over there and then we’ll move that way.

Q: Thanks a lot. I’m Dan Bob with SAIS, Reischauer Center.

Another question on trade. It wasn’t so long ago that Republicans were not exactly supporters of free trade, and Democrats were. And it’s interesting that in the USMCA, the U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement, there are labor provisions that seem—labor is not opposed to it. The Mexicans have passed some labor legislation. And over the past few years, I think going back to about 2010-2009, consistently Pew has done some polling that shows Democrats are substantially more in favor of free trade than Republicans. Then you have Trump, who’s flipped everything around. I’m just wondering if there might be a point—an inflection point at some point, where we go back to where things were seventy or so years ago, where Democrats are more comfortable with free trade and Republicans stay with the Trump view opposed to free trade.

VAN HOLLEN: So, you’re right. Good to see to you, Dan.

Look, you’re right. You have these sort of fluctuations over time. I think that, you know, in the last twenty-five, thirty years traditionally, you know, Republicans have been—would say they were the free trade party, and Democrats would say we’re the free and fair trade party. And there’s obviously a—sort of a mix—there was quite a mix of views among Democrats over various issues. Obviously President Clinton was president during NAFTA and President Obama worked on TPP, and, you know, you had a lot of Republicans more supportive than Democrats, in many cases, on TPP and where it was going.

So now you, of course, have this situation where Trump, you know, ran against TPP. Secretary Clinton ended up running against TPP. Bernie Sanders was against TPP and trade. So I’m just sort of, again, setting the stage for where we are now. I think when it comes to the renegotiated NAFTA agreement, you know, the House is going to take a close look at it. One big question, of course, is whether Mexico will implement fully the labor protections. There’s another issue in that renegotiated bill, which is the—you know, one of the provisions in the TPP that was controversial had to do with the pharmaceutical industry and extending their patent rights. And that actually has been inserted into the revised NAFTA. And so that actually may create more problems that people anticipated going forward.

So just more broadly speaking, I think when it comes to trade issues, again, there is a consensus that we shouldn’t abuse 232. And I think most Democrats agree with that, although there are some Democrats in some states that support the actions that were taken. And then it comes to Huawei and China, there’s actually—this is one area where there’s more unity of purpose, although disagreement over tactics in some way. So I actually think we’re in this period of time where it’s going to be very muddled. That’s—you know, I don’t see a lot of strong clarity. I don’t think this is going to emerge where the Democrats are the, you know, free trade party, and certainly not under Trump the Republicans. I think free and fair trade, and then interpreting that the best you can, is the way forward.

I mean, in Maryland, the Port of Baltimore, you know, has a lot of revenue from our exports. So, you know, obviously the United States has been a trading nation, and it’s been really important to our economy. But we also need to make sure we’re not being cheated by our trading partners.

GORDON: Right here.

VAN HOLLEN: Glad to see University of Maryland represented in the room. Good to see you, Mac. (Laughter.)

Q: Thank you, Chris. Happy to—honored to represent the University of Maryland.

VAN HOLLEN: Nice to see you.

Q: Forty years ago Congress became exercised with what seemed to be an outsized role being played by the president’s national security advisor. We currently have an incumbent in that office who I think rings a much broader range of alarm bells than Zbig Brzezinski ever did. On the other hand, of course, this is not a congressional decision. This is—it’s been established that this person doesn’t—isn’t confirmable by the Senate. But what—I wonder if members of Congress are sufficiently concerned with a man who seems to be against all arms control, and maybe against all alliances it’s not entirely clear. But increasing the sort of—what people were doing a little bit on Brzezinski was trying to increase the political cost to the president of having that kind of advisor.

I remember George Bundy saying to me at the time: I don’t think we’re going to—I don’t think we’re going to have this sort of activist security advisor. It’s just too costly a presence. And one of the reasons was that members of Congress raised questions then. I don’t hear a lot of questions—and I know there are a lot of things to complain about, and so I’m not saying how high—but in principle when you’ve got a sort of an erratic president and a national security advisor who doesn’t particularly care about process, and the removal of people who were constraining forces earlier in the administration, this is part of the recipe for trouble. Would you—I want to say, yes or no? (Laughter.)

VAN HOLLEN: So, first, I’m glad that you didn’t ask me a follow-up question on trade, Mac, because Mac has literally written the book, in fact two or three, on trade. But it’s good to see you.

So there’s lots of—so on the Democratic side you’ve got, you know, universal concern about John Bolton being where he is. You know, I think there’s a reason they didn’t put him forward for a confirmable position. And I will say, among Republicans, you have mixed views, including some who, you know, think it’s great that John Bolton’s there, because they agree with his sort of super-hawkish, hate all alliances and agreements approach. And some who are genuinely worried that he is the presidential advisor who has got the, you know, closest physical proximity to the president of the United States.

But I do—I do think that—I think the press reporting has been accurate, that he is—he’s been an effective inside bureaucratic player over time and that he has helped steer the policies to ratchet up the temperature on Iraq, which helped precipitate this latest back and forth. And, you know, when President Trump says he doesn’t want war with Iran—I don’t believe a lot of what Trump tweets because it’s often—well. But, as of right now, I don’t think the president wants a war with Iran. And I do think it’s worth, you know, letting the president know that those who are working for him may have their own agendas, and that they may be using their offices to push him and use the bureaucracy to push him and trap him into a situation where we end up getting into a war with Iran.

And I think it’s very similar in some ways in that regard in what we saw in the leadup to the Iraq War. You had two very seasoned players, both understanding Congress and the executive branch in the Vice President Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld, who clearly tortured the intelligence coming out of the CIA, clearly put their political spin on it, you know, clearly ended up getting, you know, Secretary Powell to do the statement at the U.N. So I think it’s important to keep reminding President Trump that there are lots of people who may have a different agenda. And I think we saw the sensitivity on that whenever it was, a couple days ago, when he tweeted out: Well, we have lots of differing opinions, but I am the decider, right?

So—but I think that that’s something that we should continue to focus on, because he is an effective bureaucratic player, Bolton. He knows what buttons to push within the administration. And the key is to do what we can to be on full alert about that.


Q: Thanks. Kim Dozier with The Daily Beast.

So along those lines, is there anyone who is an effective counterweight to Ambassador Bolton’s point of view? Is someone like a Senator Lindsey Graham also helping educate the president on some of these issues? Perhaps even bring some centrist views from the Hill to him?

VAN HOLLEN: So I think it depends on the issue. And I’m—you know, my sense is that when it comes to Iran, that’s—in that case, Senator Graham, who I agree with on some foreign policy issues, but on that issue I don’t see him as a counterbalancing force—on Iran. On some other issues, he was a force that was an effective voice. For example, on the president’s announcement that he was going to immediately withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, as you know, as of today, that hasn’t happened, despite the fact the president announced it more than once. And that’s partly because Senator Lindsey Graham intervened. And I happen to think that a precipitous withdrawal would have been a mistake for lots of reasons. Would have given Turkey more free rein. Would have thrown our Syrian Kurdish allies under the bus. So in some cases you do have those, you know, voices pushing back.

But on Iran, as of today, I don’t see it. As I mentioned in my comments, the Republican senators who are most willing to stand up on the Iran issue are those who are standing up for Congress’ right under the Constitution to declare war and, by the extension, the Congress—you know, you shouldn’t be taking military action without congressional authorization. And that is Rand Paul and Mike Lee. And they’ve been already quite clear in their comments and questioning, most recently of Secretary Pompeo when he was in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But, again, a lot of others may have misgivings, but I haven’t heard them publicly expressed. So I do—I do very much worry in this area that there a—there can be a just go along with the flow. Which is why it’s so important that we get—we, the Congress—get sort of unfiltered intelligence information.

One of my requests today has been that, you know ,we have regular briefings. From my perspective, you know, it’s not necessary for me to hear from Secretary Pompeo or the secretary of defense. I mean, I want to hear their—on policy issues. But in terms of the intelligence, I’d rather be in a room alone with the experts from the intelligence community.

GORDON: Did they accede to this request to give regular briefings? This is on the Iran issue?

VAN HOLLEN: I think the—I think—yes, this is on the Iran issue.

GORDON: And so what’s the specific request? Weekly, or?

VAN HOLLEN: It was a—it was an open-ended request to be available on call. And I think, you know, the intelligence IC people are going to make every effort to do that. I think it’s in their interests too, in the IC community, you know, not to be caught up again in sort of the politics of it.

I mean, I’ll give you one important question. Secretary Pompeo in a statement—I mentioned the AUMF. He’s been quite vague in whether or not the 2001 AUMF would authorize U.S. military force against Iran. And he’s—if you look at his public statements, he’s, you know, tried to tie al-Qaida—(laughs)—to Iranian action. And, you know, the facts just don’t bear them out. Is it true that you have some al-Qaida, you know, folks who have hung up at different—hung out at different times in northern Iraq? Yeah, but that’s not what the 2008 AUMF was about. There’s, you know—

GORDON: Did the—did the—Senator, did the purported al-Qaida-Iran link come up in your briefing today?

VAN HOLLEN: I just can’t get into the details, but it’s—you know, there were questions focused on both the intelligence, about what’s going on on the ground, but there were also a series of questions related to the policy issues.


Q: Bill Courtney, RAND Corporation.

Congress seems to be playing a greater role in foreign policy in this administration. To cite a couple of examples, the Russians believe U.S. policy has become tougher under the Trump administration, and they see Congress as the key reason that’s true. Europeans seem to be reaching out more and more to Congress for reassurance and stabilization. In your perspective, and the perspective of members of Congress, do they see that they are playing a greater role in foreign policy now? And do you think this, if this is true, this might persist even beyond this administration?

VAN HOLLEN: So I think it’s fair to say Congress is certainly expressing a lot of concern on foreign policy issues in reaction to, you know, what the Trump administration’s been doing. I would just distinguish between, you know, strong statements and actually being effective at preventing the Trump administration from pursuing a particular policy. Again, the one area where we were successful was in the CAATSA legislation. And I’m hoping we will be successful when it comes to deterring Russian interference in future elections. I will say that part from legislative action, you know, Congress has united on a bipartisan basis to try to reassure our allies, our NATO allies especially. And so while it’s not a legislative challenge, the fact is that there was a very deliberate decision to invite the secretary general of NATO to address a joint session of Congress, right? To make it very clear that, on a bipartisan basis, that Congress supports the NATO alliance and will fight for the NATO alliance.

We also reconstituted something called the NATO Observer Group, that had been around a long time ago but was set up again as part of that reassurance campaign. I’m pleased to serve as one of the senators on that. And we also sent a historically large, you know, delegation from Congress to the Munich conference, again, to signal bipartisan support. So I think when it comes to signaling and those kind of measures, you have seen bipartisan cooperation, especially with respect to the NATO alliance. Again, on issues—on Saudi Arabia, after the Khashoggi murder you had a lot of strong bipartisan statements pushing back. But, you know, right now—let’s put it this way, if Senator John McCain were in the Senate, I think you’d see even—(laughs)—much more of a Republican pushback on a lot of the president’s policies. Not all of them, but on a number of them.

And I should say as well that now that, you know, Democrats have a majority in the House—you know, they’ve only—it’s only been since January. This is our first appropriations season since the House Democrats were in the majority. And so we’ll have to—hopefully they will also be exercising the power of the purse in the area of foreign policy and national security more than they were able to do, obviously, when they were not in the majority. And in the Senate, you know, on the Appropriations Committee I’ve submitted a lot of, you know, policy-related requests using the levers of the power of the purse. And so we’ll have a healthy discussion when it comes to the foreign ops bill.

GORDON: David, hiding the back. And make this be the last question.


Q: Senator, David Sanger from the New York Times. Good to see you again.

VAN HOLLEN: Good to see you.

Q: Michael’s former colleague.

You mentioned 5G briefly. And I was wondering if you could give us a sense of where you are and where you think most of the Democrats are right now on the question of letting Huawei or other Chinese manufacturers build big parts of the U.S. network, and what we should do about allies who the administration has been threatening pretty openly with cutting off intelligence and so forth if they let Huawei in. And tell us a little bit about how you think this is going to look a few years from now, at a moment when you could have half the world using Chinese systems and the other half using Western-based systems.

VAN HOLLEN: Well, it’s good to see you.

This is a huge issue, and it’s an issue where I think there’s a large degree of bipartisan agreement. And I’m—as you know, Maryland is the home both to NSA and the Cyber Command—U.S. Cyber Command. I was out there recently. And we have a big question for the country, which is: How did we get to this position, where we are falling behind at least with respect to a big piece of the 5G equation? And it should be a wake-up call for all of us when it comes to, you know, future cutting-edge technologies. As you know, China put forward its Made in China 2025 plan.

And so whether it’s artificial intelligence, or clean energy, or a whole host of other emerging technologies, we need to make sure that we don’t get in the same place with those technologies as we are today with 5G. I just want to put that in the background, because I think it’s a big issue for the country. I mean, we were leaders in semiconductors. We’ve been leaders in bio—you know—medical research because of NIH. But we just dropped the ball on 5G.

And the consequences are pretty scary, because, again, according to, you know, intelligence communities and the public reports, it could definitely compromise not just our privacy but national security. And that’s because, as you know, you know, in China it doesn’t matter how big a company you are. At the end of the day, by Chinese law, the government of China can commandeer your telecommunications systems for whatever purposes. And, you know, I think—you know, most of the expert testimony that I’ve seen indicates that it’s very difficult for us to take effective countermeasures to stop it—to stop the ability of the government of China, if it so chooses, to sort of penetrate these telecommunications systems.

So what do we need to do? Again, strange bedfellows. I teamed up with Tom Cotton. Last year we actually passed the legislation as part of the NDAA bill last year to prevent U.S. government agencies from purchasing equipment from Huawei or ZTE. I teamed up with Marco Rubio after the ZTE flipflop by the president—I mean, just to remind people what happened on ZTE. We found that they had violated our Iran sanctions. The president—the Department of Commerce then issued a blocking order on the sale of U.S. telecommunication components to ZTE. It began to bite pretty quickly. And President Trump tweeted that he wanted to do a favor to his friend, President Xi. And he undid the Commerce Department’s blocking order against ZTE.

So fast-forward to now, obviously we’ve had a change in tune from the administration. And not only have they put in place this regulation that they will spell out that would prevent U.S. carriers from deploying any kind of Huawei equipment, the bigger piece of this—as you know, David—the really the piece with teeth is this blocking order, saying that U.S. companies cannot sell components to Huawei, because there are lots of U.S. components embedded in Huawei phones. And so, yes, Huawei, over a long period of time, might be able to substitute those U.S.—you know, substitute those components with other, you know, homemade components. But that will take a long time. And in the meantime, this will definitely put a dent in Huawei.

You know, my view is that—we were unsuccessful at persuading our European allies, partly because we’d been—(laughs)—thumbing our nose out them and dissing them when it comes to other trade issues by putting tariffs on them. So they didn’t rally around us then. So I think that’s a big mistake of the Trump policy, not being able to get our allies. But this is sort of the backup plan. And Senator Cotton and I are actually working now on legislation that could in some form codify the executive order. Now, that’s a—we’re going be—have to be careful about exactly how we do that, but I just want to go back to the fact that Huawei—I mean, the record is very clear. They stole a ton of U.S. technology on their way up. Not that they haven’t in the meantime developed their own innovations, but, you know, they started out by stealing a lot of U.S. technology.

And so you have bipartisan—bottom line: I think you have strong bipartisan support now for the president’s executive order, both pieces, barring U.S. telecommunications carriers from deploying Huawei and also the blocking order. We’ll have to see how the blocking order—as you know, there’s a waiver process for the blocking order. So we’re going to have to see how this plays out, and whether it’s just a tool the administration is using as part of the negotiations with China. And we’re going to be—we’re going to be following it very closely. But thanks for the question.

Before we close, I also want to introduce Afreen Akhter, who does our—is my foreign policy advisor, and Paul Warnke. Is Paul—there’s Paul. Paul does—he’s a fellow with us who does our arms control and some of our national security issues as well, so.

GORDON: Well, thank you very much. I think it was very, you know, informative discussion a whole variety of issues. We’re over time, so at this point I’m going to close the meeting.

VAN HOLLEN: All right. Thank you. (Applause.)


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