The last line of defense in checking President Donald Trump’s foreign-policy power is the old guard of the Republican Party, and those watchmen are about to go quietly into the night.
A 2018 Republican sweep would cripple two key Senate committees, moving them from painfully ineffective to plainly inconsequential. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee are supposed to oversee the foreign-policy and the national-security apparatus. Trump has brought them to heel.
He has belittled the outspoken Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who became a lame duck by giving up a 2018 reelection bid (Disclosure: Corker held my presidential appointment from Senate confirmation in 2016). Sitting out alongside him is another committee member, Trump-critic Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, leaving a handful of cowed Republicans and the minority Democrats to try to counter Trump policy tweets and fight for a systematically well-formulated foreign agenda.
Chairing the Armed Services Committee is Sen. John McCain of Arizona. A hale McCain is a formidable leader, whether in military conflict or D.C. turf wars, but he is publicly disrespected and humiliated by Trump, who once said the former P.O.W. was “not a war hero.” The once-powerful McCain is suffering a grave illness that may take him off the policy battlefield sooner than he deserves.
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Without the present and vibrant check Corker and McCain provide on Trump’s instincts and inclinations, the man is granted full reign over global affairs. Indeed, there are almost no judicial checks on a president’s foreign policy, and the checks within the administration are minimal. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is all but sidelined and his State Department is going through a convulsing reorganization that makes diplomats cogs, not wheels, of diplomacy. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has been given both full authority and responsibility for military matters, but the decision to militarily deploy remains with the commander-in-chief.
That leaves legislative instruments available to congressional committees — the power of subpoena, confirmation, and budget. But a 2018 rout by Republicans riding Trump coattails and parroting his messaging would further diminish the majority party’s resistance and dwindle the number of critical senators keeping the administration from usurping all power to decide matters of war and peace.
Already, Congress’s check on presidential power in foreign affairs and security is weak. The Constitution says only Congress can “declare war.” The reality, however, is that every American military engagement fought since World War II was an undeclared war. It’s been a police action, a response, kinetic military action, extended military engagement, but never a war. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and likely any fight picked by the current administration will find its legal justification in the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which is in desperate need of an overhaul.
Presidents end run Congress on war powers, but what about legislation? Congress recently tried to tie the president’s hands on Russia and force him to up the sanctions regime and punishment for Moscow’s multiple sins. He signed the bill, but undermined the legislative maneuver by sitting on his hands.
Few Republicans today have the fortitude or ability to debate, criticize or resist Trump’s foreign policy. The House has a foreign affairs committee, chaired by Ed Royce (R-CA) who has so far voted with Donald Trump 96.1 percent of the time. In Royce, Trump has a reliable ally and a rubber stamp.
Presidential power is not absolute, however. A president needs to sell his policies to the people and maintain democratic support for those policies every two years so that elected representatives can return the citizens’ electoral verdict to Washington. This week’s results favoring Democrats in Virginia and elsewhere could indicate a brewing midterm backlash against Trump next year. 2018 will determine whether Americans have faith in Trump’s conduct and character. If that faith translates into Republican majorities, those representatives are likely to grant the president the unbridled foreign policy power he sought when he declared, “I alone can fix it.”
Trump could deservedly achieve more power before next year’s election with a positive North Korea outcome, whether negotiated or otherwise. A North Korean success would prove to lawmakers and the American people that his tough talk and confrontational style works. That would reinforce and strengthen the time-tested notion of executive privilege in foreign affairs. Ironically, failure in North Korea could also favor Trump politically as an America threatened or under attack would likely rally citizens behind its president.
A 2018 Republican House and Senate would allow Trump to test Mel Brooks’s theory that “it’s good to be the king.” Then again, if this week portends a Democratic sweep next year, Congress will make sure administration bad actors are investigated, foreign follies go unfunded, military actions are constrained, and partisan appointments languish. Instead of king, Trump could become an emperor with no clothes.
Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D. is a senior fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @KounalakisM.