Corker Should Up Ante in Feud With Trump

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Columnist, The Cipher Brief

It’s time for Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to use his congressional panel rather than just his mouth or tweets, to confront President Donald Trump.

The committee has held 16 hearings since Congress returned in September, but skipped topics like Pyongyang that Trump has blasted with inflammatory tweets and statements. The panel’s two hearings scheduled for this week are to deal with nominations and the Food for Peace Program.

Corker and his colleagues should be planning a series of detailed investigative public and classified hearings on Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, Syria and the Gulf, where Trump’s threatening and sometimes inconsistent outbursts have caused concern both at home and abroad.

Thoughtful hearings would do much more to influence future administration policies than Corker saying Trump “concerns me,” and “we could be heading towards World War III with the kind of comments he’s making.”

I write this based on my own experience running an investigation for Chairman J.W. Fulbright (D-Ark.) for 18 months in 1969-1970 that led to closed and open hearings, and two pieces of legislation that attempted to limit the Vietnam War: the December 1969 Laos-Thailand amendment that prohibited sending U.S. combat troops into both those countries; and the June 1970 Cooper-Church amendment that, while not passed, guaranteed American combat forces withdrew from Cambodia, which they’d invaded only a month earlier.

In preparation for those hearings, I and another staffer traveled to Southeast Asia over six weeks, gathering classified and unclassified information from State, Defense and CIA officials on the scene. Fulbright later required some of those we interviewed abroad to return to Washington for closed-door hearings under oath that gave committee members first-hand information previously denied to the panel by more senior administration officials in Washington.

Fulbright later wrote of “the daunting task of an individual senator to publicly challenge the president of the United States, with the aura of power that surrounds him,” in his 1989 book, “The Price of Empire.” The chairman’s initial public questioning of President Johnson’s Vietnam intervention led to a break in their previous friendship.

When President Nixon came to the White House in 1969, Fulbright talked privately about his concerns with the Vietnam War not only with Nixon, but also with then-National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. However, when the Vietnamization policy was announced and the 1970 Cambodian invasion took place, he gave up working with that administration.

“It was once again a question of using the available means to reach the public, bringing whatever pressure we could to bring the war to an end,” he wrote. Methods of creating that pressure included public hearings and additional amendments to legislation to limit funds for specific military activities.

The lawmakers did have to withstand counter-pressure from “the demagogues who said we were voting to let our boys down – it was a very emotional time,” Fulbright said. “Everybody who didn’t support the president and the war was made out to be disloyal.”

Some things never change.

Corker has a guaranteed chance to use his committee to educate the public based on Trump’s decision not to certify the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the six-party agreement with Iran in 2015 that has halted Tehran’s nuclear weapons program. Although Trump in his anger twice accused Corker of supporting the deal, the Foreign Relations chairman actually opposed it and even now favors amending U.S. law to return suspended sanctions if Iran ever comes within a year of developing a nuclear weapon. That provision would in effect eliminate what critics have claimed is a sunset provision just 10-25 years away, in their interpretation JCPOA.

Corker’s handling of hearings on the JCPOA within the next 60 days will test his impartiality as chairman. Will he have just one day of hearings with two panels, one with Trump administration officials and the other with “experts” that are for and against? Or will he have the committee look at broader issues over several days, bringing in those who will discuss in depth the economic impact of the agreement and the potential ending of it, here and abroad? Will the panel have witnesses who are expert in the possible diplomatic reactions with allies, should the U.S. unilaterally apply new sanctions on Tehran?

There are also question that should be explored of what would happen should Iran react by claiming the U.S. is in violation of JCPOA provisions and thereafter rejects International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, raising again what options, other than military, are available.

Meanwhile, there are the other tense areas. What are the roughly 60 staff members of the foreign relations committee doing when it comes to North Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf? Under Fulbright and some successor chairmen, staff members served as overseas investigators whose published reports were followed by full committee hearings. The Corker committee has done none of those, according to its website.

The last Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing focused on North Korea was July 25, when Acting Assistant Secretary for East Asia Susan A. Thornton testified before the East Asian subcommittee after Kim Jong-un’s ordering the July 4th launching of an ICBM which he said could reach the U.S.

Trump’s repeated threats that imply use of nuclear weapons against Pyongyang should have led the committee to investigate the situation on its own, not just by interviewing officials and experts here, but by sending staff to South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and China. The panel should then prepare hearings with relevant officials and experts to discuss the threat, the diplomatic, economic and military situations and Trump administration’s responses as well as those of former government officials with experience in the area.

The same pattern should be followed for other troubled areas.

In his 1972 book, “The Crippled Giant,” Fulbright wrote, “The genius of the American Constitution is that it does not compel us to rely on the conscience of our presidents to protect us from dictatorship…as long as the countervailing institutions, which is to say, Congress, the courts and the state governments, exercise their countervailing powers.”

However, what worried Fulbright 35 years ago was that “we have become, for purposes of foreign policy – and especially for purposes of making war – a presidential dictatorship.”

I don’t doubt that Fulbright, were he Senate Foreign Relations chairman today, would be confronting Trump’s actions head-on, using the committee as his platform to educate the public and his congressional colleagues in an effort to challenge what’s coming out of the White House.

I do wonder what substantial steps, other than responding to Trump’s tweets and giving interviews, Corker is going to take in his final 14 months as chairman of the committee.

The Author is Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a Columnist and the Senior National Security Reporter at The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy.  He can be reached at [email protected]

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