Trump has made clear that he’s not interested in Congress’s “advice” as he prepares to sit down with Kim Jong Un. But the summit is just the beginning of a long, diplomatic process, and concerned lawmakers in both parties are torn over Congress’s role. Now secretary of state, Pompeo is Trump’s top negotiator and congressional liaison. But in 2015, Pompeo helped lead the congressional effort to pick apart President Barack Obama’s Iran deal, expose its secrets and keep up the pressure on Tehran.
Two months before the Iran deal was struck, Pompeo publicly called on Congress to play a huge role. He was one of only 25 House members to vote against the bill giving Congress the ability to review the Iran deal, because he thought it was too weak.
“It is unconscionable for Congress to grant such sweeping power to any president — but we are not allowing Obama to lift sanctions on Iran no matter what terrible deal he agrees to with Ayatollah Khamenei,” Pompeo said while negotiations were ongoing. If Obama struck a bad deal, he hoped “Congress will have the will to stop him.”
After the deal was signed, Pompeo traveled to Vienna with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to investigate the secret side deals struck between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Pompeo introduced new sanctions bills on Iran, because — according to him — Obama’s deal failed to address Iran’s human rights violations and support for terrorism. Pompeo also said going against Obama’s Iran deal was a political win.
“The American people get who the Iranian regime is. The American people will reward elected officials who do the right thing,” Pompeo told me at the time.
That’s the same Mike Pompeo who now is leading direct negotiations with the Kim regime largely outside public and congressional view. Pompeo is promising any treaty with North Korea will be submitted to the Senate for verification. But that could be months or years away, if it happens at all.
When some Democrats, led by Senate Minority Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), wrote Trump a letter last week defining what they think a good deal looks like, Trump lashed out, tweeting, “We don’t need his advice!” But Schumer said Congress “must act as a check,” adding that lawmakers shouldn’t remove sanctions if the agreement doesn’t meet standards.
In 2015, Republicans said Obama’s “wild vacillations” on Iran were a cause for concern. Trump’s actions on North Korea are at least equally concerning. Trump’s on-again, off-again, on-again summit is just one example of his haphazard, risky approach. The administration won’t say what it might give Kim in terms of security assurances, including the possible drawdown of U.S. troops in South Korea.
There’s no clarity — and apparently no agreement with North Korea — on what “denuclearization” means, whether missiles will be included in any deal and which ones, whether North Korea will agree to real dismantlement or real verification, and what exactly needs to happen before giving some economic relief.
Inside the Democratic caucus, some progressive members favor backing off to give Trump space to maneuver. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof called the Schumer letter “childish” and his tactics “obstructionist.” Joe Cirincione, president of the nonproliferation advocacy organization Ploughshares Fund, accused Schumer and his gang of “playing politics.”
But Democrats attacking Democrats for demanding that Trump strike a strong deal is counterproductive, argued Mieke Eoyang, vice president of Third Way’s National Security Program. Democrats should embrace the role of “bad cop” and push for strong measures — at the very least to strengthen Trump’s hand.
“NK may not agree to what Iran agreed to, but why not ask? Or have it in the mix, since Senate Dems not actually at the table,” she tweeted. “Someone should be willing to set a bold goal here, since Trump certainly isn’t.”
Of course, the situations in Iran and North Korea are different. But Congress’s responsibility to hold the administration’s feet to the fire is the same. There are several things Congress can do to exert oversight, demand transparency and push Trump toward the best possible deal, whether he likes it or not. If they wait until there’s a treaty to sign, it may be too late to have any real influence.
Last week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Eliot Engel (N.Y.) and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) introduced a bill to require the administration to regularly update Congress on North Korea’s illicit programs and their progress.
Lawmakers can also restrict funding to implement any agreement or restrict any economic assistance Trump promises to Kim. Trump may need congressional sanctions waivers to help North Korea with economic development. He would definitely need Congress to fund a potential U.S. embassy in Pyongyang.
All of this will surely bring charges from Trump and his allies that lawmakers are usurping the president’s power, attacking Trump because they don’t like him, or ruining a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for peace. These charges are misguided.
By Pompeo’s own logic, only the strongest oversight and transparency can give Congress and the American people confidence that the U.S. government is properly safeguarding their national security. If the deal stands up to the scrutiny, great. If not, at least the administration will be forced to publicly explain and defend the trade-offs and risks.
Congress must put on its big-boy pants and do its job. Trump needs the oversight. And if he continues to complain about it, lawmakers should point him to the man who set the precedent — his own secretary of state.