Congress

Risch won’t publicly hammer Trump with foreign relations committee gavel

New Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Jim Risch won’t publicly bash President Donald Trump the way predecessor Bob Corker publicly, famously did over disagreements on international policy.

It’s not the low-key Idaho Republican’s style.

“When I disagree with the president, the secretary of state or National Security Council, I’m going to discuss it with them,” Risch said. “I’m going to do it privately as I have in the past.”

Risch takes the foreign relations gavel from the retired Corker, R-Tennessee, who frequently and publicly feuded with Trump, accusing the president of putting the country on “a path to World War III,” calling the White House an “adult day care center,” and labeling the partial government shutdown a “purposefully contrived fight” of the president’s making.

Risch, a veteran politician known for his measured approach, insists his style doesn’t make him a yes man for Trump and the administration’s foreign policy initiatives.

The committee helps influence the direction of the nation’s foreign policy and considers all ambassadorial nominations.

A strong supporter of Trump, Risch said he’ll have no problem disagreeing with the president — just not in the press or on social media.

“I’m not going to debate it on the front page of your newspaper, with all due respect,” Risch said in an interview in his Washington office. “I’m results-oriented and I believe you get much better results that way.”

There is daylight between the senator and the president on some key issues. He voted for a Russia sanctions bill in July 2017 that the White House opposed.

“Russia is guilty of bad behavior regularly,” Risch said, alluding Russia’s military activities in Georgia, Crimea, Ukraine and other incidents. “It’s conduct we have to respond to. Our best (approach), short of kinetic action which nobody wants to do, is sanctions. That’s what we’ve done and that’s why we did it.”

Risch has affirmed the importance of the U.S. remaining in North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the seven-decade-old military alliance with European nations and Canada.

Trump had repeatedly called the alliance “obsolete” before walking the comment back in 2017. The New York Times reported last week that he privately discussed withdrawing the U.S. from NATO several times in 2018.

Trump’s NATO remarks concerned lawmakers enough that the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a measure that would prohibit Trump from using federal funds to withdraw from the alliance.

Risch agrees with Trump that other NATO countries must do more in terms of paying their dues — a recommended 2 percent of a country’s gross domestic product. But Risch sees the pact as “the most successful political-military alliance in the history of the world.”

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, and several foreign policy experts say airing differences between the legislative and executive branches is part of the job for the head of the powerful committee that helps shape America’s foreign policy.

The administration’s handling of foreign policy issues that include North Korea’s nuclear program, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Syria have come under fire on Capitol Hill and in diplomatic circles. And the committee has plenty of members willing to speak their minds on Trump’s foreign policies.

Four former Republican presidential candidates — Mitt Romney of Utah, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky — and potential 2020 Democratic White House hopeful Cory Booker of New Jersey all sit on the foreign relations committee.

“He (Risch) says he has a less confrontational view of the president, even if he disagrees with him, at least in public,” said Menendez, who publicly clashed with former President Barack Obama’s decision to re-establish relations with Cuba.

“I understand that it’s a question of style. But I do think (independence is) important sometimes, like when I was chair of the (committee) when Obama was the president. I supported him overwhelmingly but in the moments when I disagreed, I did not find a problem with respectfully disagreeing in public because you can shape foreign policy, or at least affect it.”

Louis Lauter, vice president for congressional and government affairs at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic & International Studies said Risch “views himself as someone who can be a line of communication with the president.”

“He’s going in with the idea of being a middle man there and a productive conduit with the executive branch,” he added.

Risch agrees broadly with much of Trump’s foreign policies approaches and overall has voted with the president on 90.7 percent of time, according to an analysis by the website FiveThirtyEight.

Republican foreign relations committee members say they welcome Risch’s low-key style and approach.

“He’s been in government for a long time, he’s been a governor, he’s been a legislator, he’s been a senator,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida. “He’s very good at building consensus and involving everyone in decisions.”

“I don’t really know how he’ll perform as chairman until I see him on the job,” figured Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin. “But I have a lot of respect for him, and I’m sure he’ll do a good job.”

McClatchy Washington Correspondent Alex Daugherty contributed to this report.

William Douglas covers Congress and politics regionally for McClatchy. A University of South Carolina alum, he’s also covered the White House and State Department in his stint in Washington. He’s co-host of McClatchy’s Majority Minority podcast.
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