The Republican-led Congress is increasingly writing and occasionally passing legislation to prevent President Donald Trump from taking what members believe would be ill-advised actions abroad.
The bills are few in number so far, and mostly subtle in effect. But they show how even members of Trump’s own party are restive about the commander in chief’s intentions and want to pre-empt him on multiple fronts.
Congress is worried, in particular, that Trump might extract large numbers of U.S. troops from South Korea or pull America out of NATO or ease sanctions on Russia for no good reason, or even start a nuclear war.
On each of those issues, Congress, with Republicans in the vanguard, has taken steps to rein Trump in before he can act.
Some of the bills have passed, while others have not yet been debated. Some are binding and others are statements of Congress’ views. What unites the measures and the members is a fear that Trump could harm U.S. interests.
“I can’t think of a historical period where you have had the same party control both branches of government and the two branches have been at odds on the basic values and principles of U.S. foreign policy,” said Jordan Tama, an American University professor.
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Tying Trump’s hands
One such congressional attempt to prevent a Trump move came last month, when the Senate adopted a resolution expressing the chamber’s opposition to a proposal by Russian President Vladimir Putin for Trump to hand over U.S. officials for questioning in Russia, including Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia.
Trump had briefly entertained the proposal before his aides rejected it amid a congressional furor.
The Senate measure opposing Putin’s idea was not binding, but the 98-0 vote was an unmistakable message and as bipartisan as it gets.
Similar moves on Capitol Hill have not attracted nearly so much attention, including some that are about to become binding law.
For example, the conference report for the defense authorization bill, known as the NDAA, which the Senate cleared Wednesday, would limit how easily the president could bring home any but a small fraction of the approximately 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.
Trump reportedly asked the Pentagon in May to come up with options to reduce the U.S. troop presence in South Korea. And Trump wants South Korea to pay the full $800 million annual bill for keeping U.S. forces there, instead of the 50 percent Seoul now pays.
The NDAA includes a provision written by the GOP-dominated House Armed Services Committee that would bar the Pentagon from reducing U.S. troops in South Korea below 22,000 unless the Defense secretary certifies that a deeper cut is in the national security interest of America and its allies and that nations such as South Korea and Japan have been consulted.
The conference report states that U.S. troops in South Korea are “vital” to security in the region and a significant drawdown of U.S. forces there is a “non-negotiable item” in any talks with Pyongyang. The NDAA says America “stands behind its treaty obligations and extended nuclear deterrence commitments” in the region, according to the conferees’ summary of the bill.
The conference report also directs the Pentagon to report to Congress on North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and missiles and to update lawmakers on the implementation of any agreements Trump says he has reached to rid North Korea of such arms.
Trump is expected to sign the NDAA into law this month. A White House statement of administration policy on the House’s NDAA did not take issue with the limitation on cutting U.S. troops in South Korea.
The Korea provision exemplifies how Republicans are trying to hem Trump in rather than directly block him.
“That’s the needle that they are trying to thread with these types of bills,” Tama said.
Members of Congress from both parties are also worried about Trump being in command of the nuclear arsenal. Democrats are vocal about it, while Republicans are quietly concerned.
Concerns have grown about this issue because of Trump statements about relishing the destructive power of nuclear weapons, such as his January tweet in which he referred to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and said that “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
But they are ready to take certain steps. A provision in the new NDAA conference report would require a Pentagon-funded study of elongating the time period a president would have to consider using nuclear weapons in a retaliatory strike.
If U.S. military satellites detect that America is under nuclear attack, U.S. nuclear weapons must be readied for a retaliatory strike within minutes.
That compressed timeline creates a pressure-cooker environment that could lead to rash decisions that might even be based on a flawed warning of an enemy attack.
The NDAA requires that the forthcoming study cover “the potential benefits and risks of options to increase the time the President has to make a decision regarding the employment of nuclear weapons.”
The provision was bipartisan: It written by Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, but it was included in the initial version of the bill, the so-called chairman’s mark, filed by Texas Republican Mac Thornberry, the panel chairman.
Concerns have simmered for years in Congress about any president’s compressed timeline for deciding the fate of civilization. But doing something about it, if only gathering more information, is now gaining traction because of who is in the White House today, observers say.
“This study and other ongoing congressional efforts to consider ways to strengthen checks and balances on presidential launch authority are driven largely by concern about Donald Trump’s impulsive temperament,” said Bruce Blair, a former Air Force nuclear missile officer and now a defense expert at Princeton University. “The concern applies to any president, but Trump’s character has brought it to a head.”
Republicans and Democrats alike are also fretting that Trump has opened the door to the previously unthinkable: a NATO that does not include the United States or an alliance whose entire raison d’être — collective self-defense — is in doubt.
During last month’s NATO summit in Brussels, Trump publicly speculated he could unilaterally withdraw the United States from the alliance if its member states do not further increase their defense spending. He has also wondered aloud why the United States should come to the defense of Montenegro, a small country once part of Yugoslavia, which joined NATO earlier this year, if it is attacked.
Now members from both parties are backing bills to prevent the president from withdrawing from NATO without congressional assent — potentially setting up a Supreme Court showdown if Trump were to try to take his threats beyond mere rhetoric.
The GOP sponsors of one such measure are not just any Republicans. They include Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain of Arizona and Foreign Relations Asia-Pacific Subcommittee Chairman Cory Gardner of Colorado, who is being groomed for Republican leadership.
A similar bill in the Househas more Republican co-sponsors than Democrats.
McCain, in a June statement, said such legislation must become law “to ensure that no president can withdraw the United States from NATO without the constitutionally required advice and consent of the Senate.”
If enacted, the law would affect any president, but it went without saying that only one president to date has suggested a U.S. withdrawal from NATO.
Pre-empting Trump on sanctions
Congress had been mostly focused this year on implementing existing sanctions on North Korea, Iran and Russia, not passing new ones. But that all changed after Trump stood alongside Putin in Helsinki last month and appeared to side with the Russian leader’s assertion there was no Kremlin interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.
After that, many lawmakers worried Putin might be emboldened to step up his interference in U.S. elections and that Trump might not respond adequately or might even dilute U.S. sanctions.
So, within days after the Helsinki summit, lawmakers, including leading Republicans, sprang into action.
A previously moribund bill introduced in January by Sens. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., started gaining a lot of GOP support. The bill would automatically impose penalties on Russia’s largest banks and energy companies if further election interference were detected.
The bill’s newfound Republican co-sponsors included Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Sens. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Susan Collins of Maine, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Gardner.
Another new sanctions measure was introduced Thursday by Graham and Foreign Relations ranking Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey and is also backed by McCain and Gardner.
The Graham-Menendez bill represents yet another GOP-sponsored effort to prevent a future Trump action. It would require congressional approval before Trump can lift human rights-related sanctions on Russian individuals under the 2012 Sergei Magnitsky Act, a longtime thorn in Putin’s side.
The Graham-Menendez bill also would bar funding for any U.S. withdrawal from NATO.