Feb 5, 2019

The growing foreign policy divides between Trump and Congress

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

After facing minimal foreign policy friction with Congress in the first half of his term, at least among Republicans, President Trump has for several months been caught in a maelstrom of bipartisan criticism from lawmakers.

The big picture: Historically, American presidents have enjoyed wide latitude on foreign policy. But Trump has finally bumped up against the limits of that freedom and can no longer count on Congress falling in line — with pushback from both an assertive Democratic House and a foreign policy establishment well channeled by the Republican Senate.


  • Saudi Arabia: The killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi put the kingdom under the spotlight and galvanized bipartisan opposition to its war in Yemen, which Trump has supported. A bipartisan Senate vote to end American arms sales for the Saudi war in Yemen passed and the House will soon act — solidifying the rebuke of Trump’s position.
  • The Middle East: Trump’s decision in December 2018 to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and hints of doing the same in Afghanistan prompted a backlash, including the resignation of Jim Mattis over Syria. Congress snapped to, and the Senate last week passed a bipartisan measure opposing the withdrawals.
  • Arms control: Congress has yet to address the administration's announced withdrawal from a Cold War-era nuclear arms treaty with Russia, but is typically loath to pull out of diplomatic agreements without replacements. Doing so can both trigger new security threats and undermine American credibility at future negotiating tables — a concern for North Korea talks.
  • Russia: Congress has been vexed by zigzagging implementation of sanctions against Russia for election interference. While it failed to reverse Trump’s lifting of sanctions against companies linked to Putin-ally Oleg Deripaska, the vote attracted 11 Republicans.
  • Venezuela: Trump has hewed to the congressionally supported line of opposition to President Nicolás Maduro. But too much talk of military action to remove Maduro could end that alignment.

Yes, but: On foreign policy issues with strong domestic support, such as military aid to Israel, the status quo persists in both Congress and the Trump administration, despite partisan attempts to claim otherwise.

What to watch: Russia will continue to be a flashpoint — with House Intelligence Committee hearings on election interference and Senate concerns about a new nuclear arms race — as could Defense and State Department authorization bills, if they set up conflicts over the Middle East or nuclear weapons policy.

Joel Rubin is president of the Washington Strategy Group and the former deputy assistant secretary of state for the House of Representatives.

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