Congressional Update – Week Ending January 26, 2018

I. Congress

After working overtime last week, Senate leaders struck a deal to fund the federal government after a brief shutdown. The new deal—contingent upon a promise from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) to take up immigration issues—provides short term spending for most government agencies until February 8, 2017. In the meantime, McConnell promised to allow consideration of a bipartisan immigration plan to reform the current immigration system, as well as to craft a legal solution to the plight of illegal aliens who were brought to the United States as children.

To many on the left, though, this agreement between McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) seems toothless, especially since Schumer extracted no promises that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives would even consider, never mind pass, an immigration bill. He also had no guarantees that President Donald Trump will sign any immigration bill that somehow would make it through the gauntlet of the legislative process.

With the lights back on, the House leadership sent members home for a “district work week” and the Senate took up consideration of nominations and general domestic matters.

Speaker Ryan Visits the Middle East. After having secured the House votes necessary to reopen the government, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) gave members a week away from Washington to visit with their constituents. He then departed for a bipartisan congressional delegation (CODEL) trip to the Middle East. Ryan and his six colleagues (five Republicans and one Democrat) visited Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to discuss regional developments, including pushing back against Iran and the fight against terrorism. In Saudi Arabia, Ryan and company met with King Salman and the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and in the UAE, the group met with Emirati officials including Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. The visit is sure to elicit great joy from Gulf officials who have seen a major shift in relations with the United States in the first year of the Trump presidency from the lows they experienced in most of former President Barack Obama’s time in office.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Trump Takes His Populist Message to Meeting of Global Elite. President Trump, the same man who told his supporters he would champion the cause of the everyday people and shun “elites,” is in Switzerland this week for a gathering of same. Every year, business leaders and politicians mingle in the Swiss town of Davos for the World Economic Forum and Trump is the first US president in nearly 20 years to attend the summit. Trump billed the trip as an opportunity to push the “America First” agenda and to fight the globalization trend about which his political base is skeptical. Several of Mr. Trump’s cabinet members are attending the meeting as well, including Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Vice President Pence Concludes Middle East Tour. Vice President Mike Pence, after multiple postponements, finally took his highly anticipated trip to visit key US allies in the Middle East. First, the vice president visited Cairo, Egypt where he and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi met for over two hours to discuss counterterrorism, security concerns, and regional affairs. After Egypt, Mr. Pence traveled to Jordan where he met with King Abdullah II. At meetings in the king’s royal palace, the two spoke about similar topics broached by Pence and el-Sisi. Pence then traveled to a US military outpost near the Syrian border. Billed as an appearance meant to boost morale and symbolize the White House’s support for the troops’ efforts, Pence spent time criticizing Democrats in Congress for the brief government shutdown. It is highly unusual for the second-in-command to give a politically charged speech before one of the most ostensibly nonpartisan institutions in the United States.

To conclude his trip, the vice president traveled to Israel where he held bilateral meetings with top Israeli officials—including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin—and gave a special address to Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. He was warmly welcomed in the Knesset by an overwhelming majority, but a group of Arab-Israeli lawmakers from the Joint Arab List staged a protest and were forced out of the building, to the applause of Netanyahu’s Likud members and their allies. Pence also stated before the body that the administration is likely to open an embassy in Jerusalem, in some capacity, before the end of 2019. Before departing from Israel, the vice president visited occupied East Jerusalem where he prayed at the Western Wall.

Despite Pence’s positive reception by most Israelis, it is important to remember the general discontent with his visit to Israel’s two neighboring states. In Egypt and Jordan alike, el-Sisi and King Abdullah both reportedly lectured Pence on the dangers of the administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In addition, major religious figures from Egypt and the West Bank refused to meet with Pence, undercutting the claim that the trip was partly an effort to advocate for international religious freedom. Finally, it should be underscored that officials of the Palestinian Authority (PA) indeed made good on their promise to boycott the Vice President’s visit; no meetings between the two sides are reported to have taken place.

2) Cabinet

CIA Director Pompeo Discusses the State of the Agency One Year In. On January 23, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Mike Pompeo, held a discussion at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) about the state of affairs at the agency a year after taking up his post. The discussion was wide-ranging—from President Trump’s briefing habits to Pompeo’s administration of the agency’s goals and priorities—and it shed some light on one of the most hawkish and anti-bureaucracy members of the Trump Administration.

At the outset, Pompeo was asked about the president’s briefing habits. He confirmed that he frequently gives Trump intelligence briefings personally, which is unusual, given that the director of the agency would likely have little time for short daily briefings. Further, Pompeo explained that he felt as though the president consumes intelligence “like 25-year veterans” of the agency do; this flies in the face of multiple reports that describe Trump as having a short attention span and lacking even a remote sense of intellectual curiosity about and appreciation for objective truths.

Pompeo took some time to reflect on his work one year into the job and to share his expectations and goals for the agency moving forward. Interestingly, while many in Trump’s circle are fanning the flames of hysteria about a “deep state” coalition of career bureaucrats seeking to undermine the Trump Administration’s agenda, Pompeo was rather pleased to explain how he has “cut red tape” in the decision-making process, divested authority from the top, and urged career officers to make day-to-day decisions and “take authority” from their superiors. Now that Pompeo has the agency operating at a level he feels is adequate, he hopes to push it to be “more agile and speedy,” “less risk averse,” and operate in a manner that “maintains and builds US citizen’s trust” in the organization. Pompeo was unabashed in his hope to elevate the CIA to the highest echelon of intelligence agencies worldwide, making it his number one priority to “steal secrets and keep those secrets from being stolen from us [the United States].”

As his presentation drew to a close, Pompeo gave some insight into a number of threats he found most worrisome as director of the CIA. He echoed many of the Trump Administration’s talking points, including his concern for “malign Iranian activity” in the Middle East. However, Pompeo warned that the threats facing the United States today arise predominantly from nefarious non-state actors, specifically listing Hezbollah, “Salafi-Jihadi extremists” like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, and surprisingly, then-candidate Trump’s favorite secret-stealers, WikiLeaks.

Secretary Tillerson Visits Paris, Davos. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is with President Trump in Davos, Switzerland. Prior to Davos, the secretary was in Paris for a ministerial conference on, among other things, the situation in Syria and the use of chemical weapons by the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Between Paris and Davos, Tillerson talked with his counterparts from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, as well as the prime ministers of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. It is still uncertain whether progress will be made in either the Sochi or Geneva peace processes regarding Syria, but Tillerson and the other foreign ministers forcefully condemned the recent chemical attacks in Syria and Tillerson issued a stern statement placing the blame on Assad’s Russian backers.

Ambassador Haley Keeps Pressure on UN Members. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, was on the offensive again this week at an emergency meeting of the body’s Security Council. Like Tillerson, Haley took aim at the Russian delegation, castigating Moscow for its responsibility for the chemical attack in East Ghouta near Damascus. Haley then set her sights on PA President Mahmoud Abbas, reacting to recent remarks he made about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the United States’ role in it. Haley, a staunch supporter of Israel and frequent critic of the Palestinian leadership, reiterated previous comments made by President Trump in Davos and said that the Palestinians “offended” the American president and his efforts. Haley decried the PA before the Security Council and argued that Abbas is no partner for peace. These statements are sure to widen the gulf between the Palestinian leadership and the United States, pushing substantive discussions further out of the realm of possibility.

The war of words between Washington and Ramallah did not end with Haley. The same day, Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Ambassador to the United States, Husam Zomlot, delivered a scathing broadside on US leadership on the Palestinian issue. Zomlot criticized the Trump Administration’s unilateral decision on Jerusalem and unrelenting support for Israel, as well as Congress’ efforts to curb Palestinian welfare assistance to families of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Zomlot’s rage illustrates just how far relations have deteriorated between the PLO and US officials. Tensions between the two sides are arguably higher than at any other point since President Ronald Reagan first authorized a US-PLO dialogue in 1988.