Jun 15, 2017

Congress' two big plays on Trump's foreign policy

Jim Lo Scalzo / Pool Image via AP

President Trump learned a lot this week about Congress' power to influence his foreign policy. Congress (reluctantly) allowed for his aggressive pivot towards Saudi Arabia, but on Wednesday the Senate made his life even more difficult in relation to Russia.

1. Saudi Arabia:

Republican Sen. Rand Paul led a bipartisan effort this week to block Trump's planned sale of more than $500 million of precision weapons to Saudi Arabia.

  • The arms belonged to a $110 billion package of weapons Trump promised to sell to the kingdom during his first foreign trip last month.
  • In the end, Trump won. The vote on Tuesday was close — 53-47 — but ultimately the vast majority of Republican senators, with the support of a few centrist Democrats like Joe Manchin, blocked Paul's measure.

Why this matters: Had Paul and co. succeeded, they would've stymied a major part of Trump's Middle East strategy. Trump wants the Saudis and other Gulf allies to pay more to secure the region — and to isolate Iran — but he believes the only way to execute that strategy is to sell them weapons that the Obama Administration had put on hold.

2. Russia:

The Senate voted 97-2 on Wednesday to strengthen sanctions against Russia.

  • As Axios' Alayna Treene reports: "The legislation would enable fresh sanctions on entities engaging in 'malicious cyber activity on behalf of the Russian government.' It would also require Congress to review any attempt by the President to ease or end existing penalties."
  • Between the lines, per Foreign Policy magazine: "The Russian sanctions language was an amendment attached to a bill sanctioning Iran over its ballistic missile program and terrorism sponsorship — meaning Trump would have to veto a more aggressive posture toward Iran if he were to veto the new Russia sanctions...Administration officials, led by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, sought to convince lawmakers not to codify the Russia sanctions, since that could remove some of the administration's diplomatic maneuvering room."

Why this matters: Congress is effectively preventing Trump from lifting sanctions on Russia — which means he's got far fewer carrots available to deal with Vladimir Putin. In less than five months since Trump took office, Congress has systematically crushed his plans to improve relations with Russia and explore a serious partnership to fight ISIS in Syria.

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