Congressional Update – Week Ending September 23, 2018

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Resolution Requiring Congressional Authorization for Military Action. On September 13, Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Walter Jones (R-North Carolina) introduced H. Res. 1069, which expresses the sense of the House that the president cannot launch any military action against Syria, Iran, or Russia without authorization from Congress. A number of recent developments—including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s potential use of chemical weapons, escalating tensions between Israel and Russia in Syria, and increasingly hostile rhetoric between American and Iranian officials—have prompted Gabbard and Jones to suggest that the House stand on record as saying that a US strike for any of these aforementioned reasons would be illegitimate without the express consent of Congress. The resolution was referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee for consideration.

Terrorist Asset Seizure Reform Act. On September 12, three GOP representatives introduced H.R. 6783 in an effort to broaden the government’s ability to confiscate the assets and funds of foreign terrorists or terrorist organizations. Under this bill, the US Treasury would be obligated to confiscate any interest paid by banks on the balances of accounts belonging to designated terrorists or terrorist groups. The interest confiscated from those frozen accounts would then be routed to a specially designated account within the Treasury. The bill was referred to a subcommittee within the House Homeland Security Committee for consideration.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Rep. Kinzinger Writes Op-Ed on Needed Strategy for Syria. On September 13, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois), who co-chairs the Friends of a Free, Stable, and Democratic Syria Caucus, penned an op-ed titled “We Need a Strategy in Syria.” A strong supporter of a viable Syrian regime not led by Bashar al-Assad, Kinzinger criticized Washington’s inconsistent strategy toward Syria and advocated for a robust US military presence. He recommended maintaining a strong US troop presence while bolstering de-escalation zones. He also supports enforcing no-fly zones, which could require actions such as firing on aircraft that violate the no-fly declaration.

Senator Rubio Asks AG Sessions to Probe Former Secretary Kerry’s Iran Outreach. Former senator, presidential candidate, and Secretary of State John Kerry has not been shy about his discussions with Iranian officials about the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that President Donald Trump refuses to uphold. Now, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) is asking Attorney General Jeff Sessions to probe Kerry’s efforts to see if Kerry’s actions violate a law that has never been prosecuted since it was passed over two centuries ago. Kerry’s recent efforts to keep Iran from scuttling its obligations under the JCPOA—to prevent throwing the Middle East into a potential nuclear arms race—is a violation of the Logan Act, according to Rubio. This is an 18th century law meant to forbid ordinary Americans from conducting US foreign policy. Even current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has voiced his opposition to Kerry’s moves, plainly stating that no regular citizen should be involved in foreign policy.

34 Senators Come Out Against Spending Cuts for Palestinians. Senate Democrats wrote a letter to President Trump criticizing the litany of funding cuts his administration has levied against the Palestinian people in recent weeks. Senators Chris Van Hollen (Maryland), Dianne Feinstein (California), and Chris Coons (Delaware) initiated the letter, and 31 of their colleagues signed on, bringing opposition to the budget cuts to over one-third of the upper chamber’s members. The senators were critical of the administration’s strategy toward the Palestinian people. They called on Trump to reverse the cuts to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and to the Economic Support Fund budgets, with the aim of protecting the security interests of Washington and Israel.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

White House Takes Aim at Palestinians Yet Again. This week, the Trump Administration took aim at Palestinians again, appearing to try and punish the leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA) for its steadfast resistance to bargaining with this White House. First, President Trump revoked the visas of the PA representative to Washington, Husam Zomlot, and his family. Zomlot was recalled from the United States after the administration formally moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; he has not been in Washington since that time. As part of that decision, Trump ordered all PA or Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) bank accounts closed, too. Later, the administration announced it would be reprogramming millions more in budget support used to fund programs in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This round of cuts would affect at least a portion of funds that are used to promote conflict resolution in the occupied territories, but also between Palestinian and Jewish Israelis inside Israel. Though the White House has been mum on how much exactly will be reprogrammed, some $10 million could ultimately be moved out of the occupied territories in order to support programs within Israel.

Trump to Chair UNSC Meeting; The Topic, Though, Is Unclear. This week, the United Nations will hold its annual General Assembly meeting, bringing the leaders of some 140 countries together to address a wide range of issues of global concern. Due to the rotating nature of the chairmanship, the United States currently has the gavel at the UN Security Council (UNSC) and President Trump has decided to attend and preside over a UNSC meeting. Originally, Ambassador Nikki Haley said the UNSC meeting would focus on Iran, but after it seemed that the topic would simply set up President Trump for an awkward encounter with allies and opponents alike, the White House pushed back on the idea. After that, the administration announced that the topic would instead be broader, focusing on issues like weapons proliferation in general. Later, President Trump contradicted that idea, saying he would, in fact, be chairing a meeting focused on Iran.

2) State Department

Pompeo Speaks with Moroccan, Iraqi, Kurdish, and Jordanian Leaders. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with his Moroccan counterpart this week in Washington. According to the State Department’s account of the meeting, Pompeo and Nasser Bourita discussed mutual economic and security cooperation. Interestingly, the readout noted the pair discussed ways to work together to push back against Iran’s meddling and support for terrorism in the region. While there is some documentation of Tehran trying to gain presence in North Africa, the Moroccan government has tried to brand its rival in the Western Sahara, the Polisario Front, as an ally of Iran and of Lebanon’s Hezbollah with plans to usurp the stability of those in the region—the government has even gone so far as to push an unsubstantiated claim that Iran and Hezbollah are working with the Polisario to deliver missiles to the front for use against Rabat. Bourita also spent time in Washington meeting with National Security Advisor John Bolton as well as a three Republican senators.

Pompeo also held phone calls with Mohammed al-Halbusi, the new speaker of Iraq’s Council of Representatives, as well as Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister of Iraq’s Kurdistan region. Pompeo urged both leaders to use their respective positions to quickly facilitate the creation of a new governing coalition in Baghdad. Lastly, Pompeo met in person with King Abdullah II of Jordan to discuss bilateral ties. The king also brought up issues related to the Palestine issue, including funding for UNRWA and the administration’s yet-to-be released peace plan.

Pompeo Announces Another Cut in Refugee Resettlement in US. Pompeo announced this week that the Trump Administration is imposing a 30,000-person “refugee ceiling” and vowed to process only 280,000 asylum applications for the coming fiscal year. The 30,000 figure is down from last fiscal year’s already historically low 45,000, marking another sharp decrease in the number of refugees admitted for resettlement in the United States. It is noteworthy that this figure is just the ceiling; the administration is well within in its rights to admit any number it chooses. Consider last year’s statistics for perspective: of the 45,000 maximum, the administration only resettled 25,000, the lowest in the history of the resettlement program.

Perhaps anticipating a negative public relations response, Pompeo and US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley took to the airwaves over the last few days to tell viewers that despite the drop in refugee admissions, the United States is “still the most generous” provider of aid to vulnerable refugee communities.

State Department Releases 2017 Country Reports on Terrorism. On September 19, the State Department released its findings of last year’s Country Reports on Terrorism. Ambassador Nathan Sales, who serves as the Coordinator for Counterterrorism at Foggy Bottom, held a conference call later that same day to outline some of the major findings. Many of the findings are consistent with previous years: Iran is the leading state sponsor of terrorism; North African states like Morocco and Tunisia have the largest population of citizens, per capita, fighting with the Islamic State; and failed or unstable states like Syria, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen continue to be safe havens for transnational terrorist organizations. A notable part of this report, however, involves the Palestinian Authority. Despite the Trump Administration’s vendetta against the PA’s leadership for its reluctance to negotiate with what is arguably the most pro-Israel White House of any in modern history, State Department officials lauded the Palestinian security force for its continued security cooperation with Israel. The State Department report illustrates that Israel, and therefore the United States, stand to lose critical Palestinian cooperation if the PA eventually opts to cut security cooperation in response to the anti-Palestinian policies of the Trump Administration.

Special Envoy for Iran Discusses Tehran’s Missile Proliferation. On September 19, the Hudson Institute hosted a conversation with Special Envoy for Iran Brian Hook on “Iran’s Missile Proliferation.” The conversation centered on the proliferation and threats of Iranian missiles and the demise of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Hook provided a statement and briefing, coupled by a conversation with Rebeccah Heinrichs, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

While the discussion was meant to focus on Iran’s missile proliferation, the conversation devolved into a critique of the JCPOA and an account of the current administration’s efforts to crack down on the Iranian regime. Hook said that Iran, even while the United States was implementing the JCPOA, is using, selling, and developing ballistic missiles, meaning it failed to comply with international law and threatened the safety of the United States and its interests. Hook raised the issue of Iran providing financial backing to Hezbollah in order to build missile facilities in Lebanon. He also said some Iranian missiles are being used by Yemen’s Houthi rebels and elaborated on Iran’s financial support to foreign terrorist organizations and its ongoing human rights violations. Additionally, Hook discussed the steps the United States is taking since refusing to implement the JCPOA, including imposing previously frozen economic sanctions on Iran. In general, he used the conversation to speak in broad terms about what he views as Iran’s malign and insidious behavior throughout the Middle East and North Africa.