It’s not often that the Australian media pepper House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) with questions at his weekly news briefing.
But that’s where things stood Thursday morning after Ryan ducked several queries about President Trump’s confrontational phone call with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Then Stephanie March, from the Australian Broadcasting Corp., explained that Trump’s angry follow-up tweet late Wednesday about the phone call was the “first we heard from the president directly” and questioned whether this would be the normal course of diplomacy. Ryan tried to reassure her of Australia’s special status.
“No, I don’t think Australia should be worried about its relationship with our new president or with our country, for that matter,” Ryan said. “I know your country well. I met with your leaders continuously over the last number of years. So, no, Australia is an important and essential ally. It’s going to continue to be.”
Ryan’s bid to reassure Australia came within minutes of Sen. John McCain’s announcement that he had called Australia’s ambassador, Joe Hockey, to tell him his nation is “one of America’s oldest friends and staunchest allies.” Later in the day, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) tweeted: “Just got off the phone with Ambassador @JoeHockey. We discussed the important and long-lasting alliance between our two countries.”
It was an extraordinary new role for the House speaker and the chairmen of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, respectively: cleaning up after the leader of their own party. On Thursday, those duties involved trying to shore up diplomatic lines of communication with America’s longest-standing ally in the Pacific Rim.
It remains to be seen whether this will become a regular practice. But just two weeks into the new administration, relations with allies such as Australia and Mexico have been strained, while rivals such as China and Iran have been outright enraged by Trump’s seemingly impulsive moves and statements made by Trump.
Some lawmakers pledged to continue their work back-channeling with these nations, particularly allies, to help soothe tensions sparked by Trump’s words and actions.
Corker said Thursday, after his call to Hockey, that he has talked to Trump about his style in talking to foreign leaders, to no avail so far — so these situations are likely to recur. “The president’s a business guy, and we’ve had this conversation,” he said. “You know, business guys kind of go straight to the issue, and I think it’s something that probably will continue for some time.”
Yet Corker, who has spent many hours at the White House with the president and his national security team, remains optimistic that Trump’s top advisers will help smooth over any feathers that Trump ruffles. “He does have a very, very good team of people around him,” Corker said.
McCain made the decision to call the ambassador once he read The Washington Post’s report about Trump getting into an argument with Turnbull over a previously negotiated agreement for the United States to accept refugees from Australia.
McCain declined to say whether he called anyone at the State Department or the new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, to alert them to his diplomatic overtures. And he vowed to keep up the effort in the future if he feels it’s required.
“I will continue to do my work,” McCain said.
Congressional intervention in foreign affairs, without specific notification to administration officials, is normally considered poor form.
The Obama administration was furious two years ago when John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), in his last year as House speaker, invited Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a joint address of Congress to voice opposition to the emerging nuclear deal with Iran. Boehner did so after consulting with officials at the Israeli Embassy but not the State Department or White House.
In March 2015, Democrats voiced similar outrage when Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) organized a letter of more than 40 Senate Republicans to Iranian leaders trying to sabotage negotiations over the nuclear pact.
And congressional leaders in both parties are still puzzling over a trip to Syria by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), during which the lawmaker, shortly after being sworn in for a third term, met with the rogue nation’s president, Bashar al-Assad, who many Democrats and Republicans consider a war criminal.
On Thursday, however, McCain’s call was mostly applauded across Washington, with other Republicans following Ryan’s lead by backing up the U.S. alliance with Australia — a key military ally since World War I that has joined U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The president said it’s going to be about ‘America First’, and I agree with that,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), “But obviously we have important allies around the world, and we’re going to have some differences of opinion and that shouldn’t be surprising.”
Cornyn said that lines of communication across the globe might run in a more normal fashion now that Tillerson has taken over after a rough confirmation process. “We did just get a secretary of state,” he said.
Still, it’s a sign of where things are that members of the president’s own party aren’t sure how often they will have to serve as diplomatic repairmen for Trump’s own impolitic way of speaking.
After more than a year of ducking Trump’s attention-getting comments, tweets and other controversies, Republicans appear willing to step in between Trump and the nation’s global alliances.
Early in his press briefing, Ryan refused to answer a question about Arnold Schwarzenegger taunting Trump on Twitter. “Let’s talk about policy,” he replied.
But March, on behalf of her nation on the other side of the world, finally prompted the speaker to join the fray.
“You haven’t maybe been to many of my press conferences,” Ryan told March. “I typically don’t quote or comment on the tweet of the hour.”