Congressional Update – Week Ending May 4, 2018

I. Congress

Congress was on recess this week and both chambers are scheduled to return to the Capitol next week.

1) Personnel

Bernie Sanders’s Constituents are Pushing Him to Visit Gaza. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont)—already the most outspoken supporter of the Palestinians’ nonviolent protests against Israel—is being pushed by his constituents to use his popularity to draw even more attention to the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. A movement known as Brattleboro Solidarity consists of outspoken advocates for Palestinian rights in Gaza in the wake of massive protests near the border with Israel. They have started a public campaign to get the senator to travel to Gaza in an effort to raise more awareness about the Israeli blockade of the enclave and the terrible living conditions imposed on the Palestinians there. While Sanders has yet to make a statement about visiting, Democratic colleagues in the House of Representatives wrote to Israel’s ambassador to the United States last week reiterating their desire to enter Gaza. Any visit by congressional members will go a long way toward legitimizing the Palestinians’ grievances in the eyes of many Americans.

Patrick Leahy Blocks $300 Million to Egypt. Senator Sanders’s fellow Vermonter, Patrick Leahy (D), has put a hold on $300 million that was allocated to Egypt due to the government’s role in injuring American citizens and its broader human rights abuses.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Trump Administration Freezes Funding to Syria’s White Helmets. The Trump Administration has frozen funds to the Syrian Civil Defense—a group of volunteers, dubbed the White Helmets, who have acted as emergency responders to civilians affected by the fighting in the country. The freeze has been characterized by the State Department as a “review” but all indications suggest that the White House failed to meet an April 15 deadline to approve the funding. White House officials have yet to clarify whether the funds will eventually be released, jeopardizing the efforts of this Syrian civilian-led institution.

2) State Department

Newly Confirmed, Secretary Pompeo Visits Allies in Middle East. Shortly after being confirmed as secretary of state, Mike Pompeo departed for a summit conference of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members and followed that with a trip to the Middle East. His first stop was Saudi Arabia, where he had meetings with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as well as with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. Pompeo then shuttled to Tel Aviv to confer with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The US secretary of state concluded the trip with a visit to neighboring Jordan where he met with King Abdullah II and the Jordanian foreign minister, Ayman Safadi.

Over the course of the official visits, and in the days since, Pompeo has spoken at length about the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal, and the threats emanating from Tehran; clanges confronting allies Israel and Jordan; the need to resolve the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis that has divided the United States’ Gulf Arab allies; and the prospects of forging a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

  • GCC Crisis. Secretary Pompeo had a simple, but blunt, message for the United States’ GCC allies: resolve the problems between the blockading states and Qatar. Unlike former Secretary Rex Tillerson—whom blockading states Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt were keen to ignore—Pompeo has a much better relationship with President Trump, meaning the secretary now has greater say in US policy toward the GCC. As Iran hawks, there is no doubt that Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton have tried to impress upon Trump the need for a unified GCC to push back against Tehran’s actions in the region.
  • Iran. Following his tour around the Middle East and a showy presentation by Netanyahu, Pompeo asserted that the JCPOA was “built on Iran’s lies.” This is despite the fact that leading congressional and administration officials, as well as intelligence experts, have known since the mid-2000s about the information Netanyahu used in his presentation to malign Iran’s intent through its nuclear program. Indeed, the JCPOA was pursued partly because of the very information Israel’s prime minister asserted to be new and revelatory intelligence. Pompeo was vocal in his anti-Iran sentiment during his visit with Middle East leaders; Iran was a major topic with the Saudis and Israelis, and the new secretary even raised the issue with Jordan.
  • Israeli-Palestinian Peace. Pompeo pushed largely competing narratives about the administration’s position on the Israel-Palestine conflict. He said that he believes the two-state solution that has long been a pillar of US policy toward the conflict is “a likely outcome.” However, he also voiced support for Israel’s response to the large protests that Palestinians have been staging near the border. This is sure to expand the divide between the Palestinians and the Americans because the former—along with most of the international community—argue that Israel has responded excessively and has violated human rights. The Trump Administration does not even try to craft an image as an honest and objective broker of peace anymore, so it is difficult to see how Washington will play a constructive role in bringing about the two-state solution.

3) Defense Department

Top Military Officials Deactivate Coalition’s Land Operation Headquarters in Iraq. This week, the US-led coalition tasked with combatting the so-called Islamic State (IS) announced that the Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command Headquarters in Iraq was deactivated, marking the end to major coalition-led combat missions. Instead of fighting IS militants in the oft-cited “by, with, and through” others strategy to improve capacity, coalition officials stated that the emphasis now will shift to a wider array of train-and-equip strategies in an effort to bolster Iraqi capabilities of combatting security threats. Though US-led combat missions are ending in Iraq, the same cannot be said for neighboring Syria. The IS presence there requires the broad coalition—and the United States, more specifically—to maintain a presence to ensure a lasting defeat. In fact, Secretary of Defense James Mattis plainly stated that the United States intends to maintain a troop presence until a lasting peace can be attained, and the State Department announced this week a relaunching of US-backed operations on IS strongholds in Syria.

III. Judicial Branch

Iran Ruled at Fault in 9/11 Lawsuit. On May 1, a federal judge ruled that Iran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are liable for damages incurred by a number of victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Though the judge ruled that Tehran is at fault, legal experts and seasoned diplomats say that Iran will never pay the billions for which the court says it is liable, and the United States has little recourse to compel it to do so.

Trump Administration Sets New Guidelines for Guantanamo Detention and Transfers First Inmate. Despite President Donald Trump’s insistence that suspected terrorists at the United States’ detention center in Guantanamo Bay should remain there—to say nothing of his and other Republicans’ desires to detain more suspects at Guantanamo—his administration officially transferred its first detainee out of detention this week. The transfer came shortly after Secretary Mattis sent the White House his policy recommendations for housing new detainees. Legal experts surmise that putting new suspects in detention could be legally suspect, at best, and many assume that Mattis’s suggestions will be more cautious and require stricter procedures than the president likely wanted when he declared he aimed to “load” up the detention facility.