For two years the Trump administration has largely ignored attempts by congressional Democrats to oversee — much less investigate — the execution of U.S. foreign policy by the executive branch. But the incoming chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), told me his committee will waste no time before beginning inquiries into how the White House, the State Department and even the Trump Organization have been conducting foreign policy.
“The White House needs to take us seriously, and if they don’t, we are going to make sure they take us seriously,” Engel said in an interview Wednesday. “I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt. … But if not, I intend to use every prerogative that I have to ensure oversight.”
Democratic chairmen are going to offer the administration a good-faith opportunity to work with their new congressional counterparts, Engel said. But if that doesn’t work, they won’t shy away from using subpoenas, budgets or whatever other tools they have at their disposal to compel the cooperation the legislative branch is entitled to.
For a congressman who decried State Department stiff-arm tactics during the Benghazi investigation, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo should demonstrate a stronger commitment to cooperating with legislative oversight, Engel said.
“I respect him as secretary of state. He needs to respect the Foreign Affairs Committee. Respect is a two-way street,” Engel said. “I won’t stand for delay and non-responsiveness to things that are clearly in our jurisdiction.”
Engel is one of a group of new Democratic committee chairpersons frustrated with the administration’s uncooperative attitude on foreign policy matters. They include incoming House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (Wash.), incoming Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey (N.Y.) and incoming Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (Calif.).
Engel said he intends to hold hearings on Russia, the Trump Organization’s international conflicts of interest, Saudi Arabia, the management of Pompeo’s State Department and many other topics. Pompeo has only testified once before the committee since taking office, and Engel will press him to appear again soon.
Russia is first up on the agenda, he told me. The House Foreign Affairs Committee has jurisdiction to look into Russian interference in U.S. democracy, possible collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, and all other aspects of Trump’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Engel said.
“We still don’t know what happened in Helsinki between Trump and Putin. It’s ludicrous that months later, we still don’t know,” he said. “I want to find out.”
As for Trump’s personal conflicts of interests, the committee will press for answers on issues such as the one Engel and incoming Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) raised in a letter to the Trump Organization’s general counsel in April. They were responding to reports the Trump Organization interfered in U.S. foreign policy by asking favors from the president of Panama. That could be the tip of the iceberg.
“It’s a valid topic for us to look into,” Engel said. “There has been a concern about the motivations of the administration in terms of policies in different countries, and is it connected to Trump’s business interests.”
When it comes to Pompeo’s State Department, congressional Democrats have been stymied in their efforts to investigate reports of retaliation against State Department employees who worked for the Obama administration, loyalty tests for public servants, failure to produce documents related to whistleblower accusations and lots more.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee has always prided itself on its bipartisanship, and Engel intends to preserve that if at all possible. But the White House and the State Department have considered themselves beyond the reach of reasonable oversight for far too long. Trump may not see the value in rethinking that approach, but Pompeo should.
The administration shouldn’t underestimate the capability and experience of their new overseers. Engel came into Congress in 1989, a class that included Lowey; Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), who is expected to helm the Ways and Means Committee; and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), the incoming chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.
The last Republican remaining from that class, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), lost his race Tuesday. Rohrabacher, known to most as Putin’s favorite congressman because of pro-Russia views, was the head of the Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe.
“[Rohrabacher] took his role in the Foreign Affairs Committee seriously,” Engel said, offering his longtime friend a parting compliment. “He wasn’t someone who didn’t put the work in.”