Senators and State Department at Each Other’s Throats

By (Betsy Woodruff)
Photos Getty

On Friday, June 28, an email with an odd subject line hit the inboxes of the Senate’s top national security staffers. 

“RE: Gabriel—does this look good to you?” it read. 

Beneath the cryptic subject line was an invitation from the State Department asking Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) staff to join a question-and-answer conference call with a top official working on Iran policy. 

The call, on the following Monday, did not go well. Staff had been eager—and impatient—to hear how the administration would handle Iran’s decision to amp up its uranium enrichment. But after reading a bland statement full of already public information, Matt McInnis, a political appointee who works on Iran policy, said a technical difficulty meant he couldn’t take questions. The whole call lasted less than 10 minutes, according to multiple people on it.

“It was insulting,” said one staffer on the call. “It was such a box-checking exercise for them.” Another staffer described feelings of amusement mixed with horror. 

For participants, the blunders were a microcosm of the metastasizing tensions between SFRC and the State Department. The committee is supposed to oversee the department. But five Hill staffers familiar with its work told The Daily Beast it has struggled under the leadership of Chairman Jim Risch, an Idaho Republican and Trump ally who wasn’t distinguished for broad foreign policy chops when he ascended to the post. Before Risch took the gavel, Sen. Bob Corker—who retired last year—ran the committee. While Corker was a traditional Republican who almost always voted with President Trump, he used the post to lambaste the administration’s frequently perplexing foreign policy choices. He even called the White House “an adult day care center.” 

Under Risch, things are different. The conservative from Idaho has taken a much more deferential approach and is loath to publicly criticize the administration. He has yet to schedule open hearings on the war in Libya, the violent unrest in Sudan, and the free trade deal between the U.S. and Mexico.

Multiple staff blamed Risch’s non-combative approach for the committee’s struggles to get briefings and testimony from the department. And they point to debacles like the Iran conference call as evidence of the department’s disregard for the committee.

Risch’s defenders, meanwhile, say he engages in effective behind-the-scenes advocacy to the president and that until a few months ago, there were hardly any Senate-confirmed senior State Department officials who could testify. They also credit Risch with securing a long-awaited classified briefing from Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, though Democrats say they’re still frustrated Khalilzad hasn’t testified publicly. 

The committee still has trouble getting answers. To this day, according to two staffers, the department has yet to provide the committee with a copy of the U.S./Mexico agreement on tariffs that Trump himself waved around in front of news cameras on June 11. Committee staff have sent weekly emails to the State Department—for months now—asking for details on the administration’s decision to cut aid to Central American countries and have yet to get substantive answers to their questions, per one aide. 

“It is like pulling teeth to get information from this administration,” another aide said. 

“We get very much a head-pat acknowledgement,” said a third staffer. “Kind of, ‘There, there, Congress, we’ll tell you the bare minimum and that’s that.”

Suzanne Wrasse, the communications director for Risch on the committee, said the chairman effectively advocates for SFRC.  

“The chairman is a pragmatic lawmaker with a long history of working ‘behind the scenes’ to get results, not to make political points,” she said. “He is in regular contact with the president and his senior advisers, and has used his stature to deliver results for the committee on a bipartisan basis.”

Risch has also touted his warm relationship with Trump. 

“He has treated me with nothing but respect and listened carefully to what I had to say, and sometimes I was able to move him,” the senator said in a February Roll Call interview. “Sometimes a little bit, sometimes more than a little bit. Sometimes not at all.”

One tense moment came when the administration decided to use an emergency declaration to green-light billions of dollars in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan.

Traditionally, the State Department consults with SFRC on arms sales—but not this time. And it wasn’t for lack of talking; in the days leading up to the declaration, there was communication on the Iran situation between senior Trump administration officials and the Senate. Sec. Mike Pompeo and Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, held a members-only briefing for senators just two days before the arms announcement. But the topic of an emergency declaration didn’t come up in that briefing, according to people familiar with it. Instead, SFRC staff found out about the arms deals the day the administration announced them, on May 24. 

That day, State set up another conference call for congressional staff to explain their move. Clarke Cooper, the assistant secretary for political-military affairs, was on the call. At one point, a staffer pushed Cooper on why the department hadn’t worked with Congress on the move, given its oversight responsibility. 

“That’s a matter of semantics,” Cooper replied, according to a source who was on the call—which then exploded. To some listeners, Cooper’s comment sounded like a glib write-off of Congress’s constitutional duty to hold the executive branch accountable. 

Reached for comment on this incident, a State Department spokesperson pointed to congressional testimony Cooper gave several weeks later, where he said the department “value[s] deeply this Committee’s and Congress’ role more broadly in the review of the arms transfer process.”

The frustrations are percolating as Trump faces some of his thorniest foreign policy dilemmas yet. Just weeks ago, the president said he nearly green-lit a strike on Iranian targets that could have killed scores of people. Instead, the president deferred to the non-interventionists in his orbit—including Fox News host Tucker Carlson. But as crises materialize like it’s Whack-A-Mole, staff working with the committee responsible for overseeing American diplomacy say it’s in the dark. And they have to wonder: How could this administration handle negotiations with the Iranians if they can barely run a conference call about them?

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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