Congressional Republicans are attempting to carve out a greater role in U.S. foreign policy, a sign that they do not have complete faith in Donald Trump’s abilities in international affairs nearly seven months into his presidency.
In recent weeks, GOP lawmakers have taken several actions that could tie Trump’s hands. They approved legislation that would allow Congress to have the final say over any easing of sanctions in Russia. They included provisions in the annual defense-spending bills that would require the Pentagon to produce missiles that would violate a treaty between the U.S. and Russia. And Sen. John McCain vowed to formally introduce his own military strategy for Afghanistan if the administration continued to stall.
There’s natural tension between the legislative and executive branches over authority on foreign policy issues. But given that a member of their own party occupies the Oval Office, the congressional Republicans’ posture is exceedingly rare. And their latest moves may be only just the beginning.
“It’s particularly unusual when one party is in control,” said Thomas Wright, the director of the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution, of Congress’s efforts to assert itself. “I think it does speak to the uniqueness of the president and how the foreign policy establishment’s doubts about him are so great that they have generated this response.”
The clearest break between Congress and the Trump administration came on legislation that codified sanctions against Russia for meddling in the 2016 election. The White House lobbied against a provision in the bill that gave Congress the ability to override the president if he attempted to unilaterally roll back the penalties.
Still, the sanctions package sailed through both chambers with veto-proof majorities. Trump, who has previously called for warmer relations with Moscow, signed the bill into law, but said it contained “clearly unconstitutional provisions,” adding that he could “make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress.”
GOP members shook off the president’s criticisms. “I’m proud of the legislation,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker told reporters at the Capitol. “And I’m actually very proud of the fact that Congress continues to assume its rightful role in foreign policy.”
After winning this battle, GOP lawmakers may feel more emboldened to challenge the administration in the future.
“The Republican-led Congress has been pretty clear that it won’t do anything to hit Trump politically, but it’s willing to push back in principle on policy,” Wright said. “I think that the Russia-sanctions bill is probably the beginning of much greater congressional engagement on foreign policy in the next couple of years.”
Another Russia-related tussle could occur when Congress returns from its August recess. Under both versions of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, the military would essentially be forced to develop missiles that a 1987 arms-control treaty negotiated by the U.S. and Russia prohibited. Supporters of this measure, including Trump ally Sen. Tom Cotton, argue that Russia has already violated the treaty. But as with the sanctions bill, the administration is concerned the language would hinder their efforts to create a comprehensive Russia strategy. The House passed its NDAA last month, and the Senate will take its version up in September.
Aside from Russia, McCain, a frequent thorn in Trump’s side on national security matters, is trying to force the president’s hand on Afghanistan. After months of internal debate, Trump and his advisers have still not settled on a military plan for the region. So McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he would introduce his own strategy for the 16-year-old war in Afghanistan as an amendment to the NDAA if the White House fails to come up with one by next month.
“More than six months after President Trump’s inauguration, there still is no strategy for success in Afghanistan,” McCain said in a statement. “Eight years of a ‘don’t lose’ strategy has cost us lives and treasure in Afghanistan.”
The biggest test for just how far Congress can extend its influence on foreign policy may come on war authorization. Members from both parties have rekindled their efforts to repeal and replace what they see as an outdated 2001 bill giving the president blanket authority to fight terrorist groups abroad.
Congress has attempted to update the Authorization for Use of Military Force in the past, only to balk at casting a tough war vote. But after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee met last week with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis, Corker said the panel may mark up an AUMF bill this fall, even though the administration isn’t asking for one.
“The [Russia] sanctions are an important story in and of themselves,” said Christopher Preble, the vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute and an advocate for a more active Congress in international affairs. “But I think the much bigger issue pertains to the institutional fecklessness on the part of the Congress with respect to the most important foreign policy issue, which is war and peace.”