Congress has proposed new checks to curb Trump's national security powers
The Senate has passed a Russia sanctions bill to give Congress new review powers
In ways big and small, Congress is taking back power from President Donald Trump on national security matters.
From Russia to the Pentagon budget, Republicans in Congress are proposing new checks to curb the White House’s power and in some cases simply ignoring the Trump administration’s desires on national security and foreign policy.
Wary of favorable comments Trump has previously made about Russia, the Senate has passed a significant Russia sanctions package that gives Congress the ability to review any administration effort to roll back sanctions against the Kremlin. Congressional committees approved three defense bills this week boosting Pentagon spending by about $30 billion more than the Trump administration proposed after Republicans complained that Trump’s budget failed to rebuild the military as he promised.
And in a surprise vote this week, a House panel approved an amendment to repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which provides legal authority for the US wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I think it’s sinking in, especially with Republican members of Congress, that they are not getting the kind of adult leadership out of the White house that would allow you to give deference to the White House,” said Mieke Eoyang, a national security analyst at Third Way and former congressional aide. “So you see Congress stepping up to take a much more aggressive role on national security for the first time in a very long time.”
Legislative vs. Executive
For years, a small chorus in Congress has bemoaned the legislative branch giving back its national security powers to the executive, from war-making to the budget caps imposed by the sequestration law.
Congress certainly hasn’t taken back those authorities in full, and some experts argue most of the steps taken thus far are mostly symbolic. There are still major hurdles to passing a new ISIS war authorization, the new Russia sanctions have stalled with the House, and sequestration spending caps are still looming over the spending process.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that Congress is looking to assert some structure on a chaotic national security process … but at the moment these don’t yet strike me as significant checks – yet,” said Loren DeJonge Schulman, a defense analyst at the Center for a New American Security. “I’ll be willing to say Congress is offering a real check to this administration when it refuses to fund one of its initiatives, or halts war funding until a clear strategy is provided.”
There were also similar efforts to curb President Barack Obama’s national security powers, including blocking the closure of the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay and rolling back surveillance authorities.
At the start of the Trump administration, Republican congressional leaders on national security were hopeful that the national security team – Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats – would steer Trump in what they consider the right direction.
Trump was praised for his decision to strike Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack. But in many cases, Trump has ignored or overruled his national security team, and the President’s actions and statements – or lack of action – has sparked a more robust response on Capitol Hill than during the Obama years.
“I think we are seeing a growing dose of skepticism by members of Congress – notably in the President’s own party – about Trump’s ability and willingness to grasp the complexities of key national security problems and his unique responsibilities as commander in chief,” said John Kirby, a CNN diplomatic and military analyst a former Pentagon and State Department spokesman under Obama.
The Senate’s Russia sanctions bill may be the most significant fight thus far over the balance of national security power. The bill, which passed 98-2, would give Congress the ability to block Trump from rolling back sanctions on Moscow and comes amid concerns from lawmakers following a Washington Post report in May that said Trump was considering returning two Russian compounds that the US seized in December sanctions on Russia.
Rebukes of Trump
Senators are now pressing the House to pass the bill without weakening it.
While the House Appropriations Committee’s vote to repeal the 2001 war authorization is unlikely to be signed into law, it is another implicit rebuke to Trump and a sign of growing congressional discontent with an unchecked war on terror.
The proposed amendment received support from both Democrats and Republicans during debate, but the vote caught House leaders in both parties off guard.
In other cases, Congress has taken symbolic gestures to rebuke the President.
The Senate, for instance, passed an amendment reaffirming support for NATO’s Article 5 principle that an attack on one member is an attack on all – a vote that came after Trump did not reaffirm the principle during his speech at NATO headquarters. The House passed a similar resolution on the floor this week to reaffirm the US commitment to NATO.
Key Republican senators are also injecting themselves directly into foreign policy decisions.
After Trump took Saudi Arabia’s side in the blockade of Qatar by four Gulf countries – putting him at odds with statements from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker got involved.
The Tennessee Republican said he would use his authority as chairman to block any new foreign arms sales to all of the countries involved until a path to a resolution was found.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain has slammed the administration for failing to articulate a strategy for Afghanistan, and he threatened to provide one himself at a June confirmation hearing for Patrick Shanahan, Trump’s nominee for deputy defense secretary.
“The President has two choices: Either give us a strategy or we will put a strategy that we develop into the defense authorization bill,” McCain said.
Ignoring Trump’s budget
McCain did not include his own Afghanistan strategy in his defense bill that passed this week given that Mattis has promised one in July. But the Arizona Republican did blow by the Trump administration’s Pentagon budget request, authorizing $640 billion in base spending compared to the Trump budget’s $603 billion request.
“He called it a 10% (budget increase),” McCain told CNN. “It wasn’t. It was 3%, and it was a joke. I think it’s very clear that the majority of Congress, because of events in the world, view more seriously the cuts that have been made in defense spending.”
While Republicans will still have to fight with Democrats over final spending levels, McCain and other defense hawks have placed the blame for Trump’s defense spending levels at the feet of his budget chief, Mick Mulvaney, a fiscal hawk who often targeted defense spending while in Congress.
“Congress is in the lead here, but we’re not making this up, we’re going to the experts,” said Ohio Republican Rep. Mike Turner. “We’re listening to DoD and we’re merely giving them what they’ve already said that they needed. The problem is that OMB didn’t listen and we are.”
The Trump administration’s proposed 32% cut to the State Department budget has gotten even less consideration in Congress, as lawmakers in both parties say they’re going to ignore the proposal.
“After about five minutes, I said, ‘This is a total waste of time,’” Corker told Tillerson at a June budget hearing. “The budget that’s being presented is not going to be the budget we deal with. It’s just not.”