Congressional Update – Week Ending September 1, 2017

I. Congress

This was the final week of Congress’ August recess. Both the Senate and House of Representatives will return for legislative business on September 5 and lawmakers face a daunting schedule for the month. In addition to the unenviable tasks of passing federal spending bills and raising the United States’ debt ceiling, Congress members will also have to decide whether or not to provide funding for relief efforts in Texas and Louisiana after both states were hit hard by Tropical Storm Harvey.

While foreign affairs will take a backseat to Congress’ appropriation efforts, there are some key pieces of legislation that will likely be considered in the coming months. Before the end of the year, Congress must decide if it will reauthorize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments Act of 2008. This legislation authorizes the US National Security Agency (NSA) to undertake electronic surveillance of foreigners outside US borders (e.g., in the Middle East). Foreign policy staffers on both sides of Capitol Hill have suggested that lawmakers may also consider interesting pieces of legislation like the Taylor Force Act and the Palestinian International Terrorism Support Prevention Act of 2017. In addition, more and more members of Congress have become vocal about the need to authorize the use of military force (AUMF)—particularly in Syria—so legislation to that end may be considered. The Trump Administration denies that a new AUMF is necessary to conduct its anti-Islamic State (IS) campaign, setting the stage for a potential clash over war powers between the legislative and executive branches.

Senator Robert Menendez Stands Trial. One of the Senate’s most stalwart supporters of Israel and vociferous critics of Iran will stand trial next week. Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) has been accused of allegedly taking part in a years-long bribery scheme. If convicted, the former chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) could face jail time and lose his Senate seat.

II. Executive Branch

1) The White House

President Trump Speaks with King Salman. On August 30, President Donald Trump spoke by telephone with King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia. According to the White House’s account of the call, the two spoke generally about the need to combat terrorism and extremism, as well as the overarching threat from Iran. Trump also reportedly urged the king to find a political solution to the ongoing Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) rift between a Saudi-led bloc of states and Qatar. If true, it appears that President Trump has backed down from statements he made after the conflict broke out and is now in line with the more diplomatic approach of Secretaries of State Rex Tillerson and Defense James Mattis.

Trump will likely have a similar conversation with the Emir of Kuwait during a meeting scheduled for September 7 in Washington.

2) Department of State

State Department Reorganization. This week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson penned a letter to SFRC Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), outlining his plan to cut a number of special envoy positions in an effort to reorganize the State Department. According to the secretary’s proposal, 36 of the 66 special envoy or representative positions will be eliminated completely or consolidated with other department bureaus. Among those positions, several directly relate to projects and outreach efforts in the Middle East. For example, Tillerson proposes assigning the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom to undertake tasks traditionally handled by the Special Adviser for Religious Minorities in the Near East, the Special Representative to Muslim Communities, and the Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Similarly, the Bureau for Near East Affairs will absorb the responsibilities currently delegated to the Special Coordinator for Libya and the Special Envoy for Syria.

The proposed changes are a clear indication of the Trump Administration’s foreign policy priorities. Tillerson prefers a slimmed-down State Department and expects to cut down on wasteful or redundant spending. But critics argue that he is setting his department up for failure by delegating even more tasks to bureaus that are understaffed and facing steep budget cuts.

3) Department of Defense

Press Briefing from Baghdad. On August 31, Commanding General of the Combined Joint Task Force, Stephen Townsend, participated in a press briefing via teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq. Lt. Gen. Townsend gave a brief update on the US-led coalition’s anti-Islamic State efforts, known as Operation Inherent Resolve. Townsend lauded the United States’ “by, with, and through” strategy that focuses on supporting native forces in both Iraq and Syria, allowing locals to liberate their own homes and towns.

Townsend also provided some details about the convoy of IS fighters that was evacuated from the Lebanese-Syrian border following a ceasefire agreement with Hezbollah. The anti-IS coalition was dissatisfied with the deal and Townsend illustrated US efforts at blocking the convoy from reaching IS-held territory. At the time of his press briefing, Townsend said the convoy had turned back into territory held by the Syrian government and, while the US-led coalition will not bomb the convoy itself because of the presence of the fighters’ families, it will continue to disrupt the fighters’ travel and will strike any of their comrades approaching them.

General Townsend also spoke about IS’s elusive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. While past reports have claimed he has been killed, Townsend said he believes the self-declared Caliph is still alive. The general admitted he had “no clue” where Baghdadi might be if he is, in fact, still alive, but that the coalition will continue its efforts to find and kill him.

III. The Judicial Branch

The Judicial Branch of the US government seldom plays a role in US foreign policy, but this week saw noteworthy developments in cases against President Trump’s controversial immigration order—or “travel ban,” as he emphatically calls it—that bars citizens of six Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.

Darweesh v. Trump. This legal challenge was responsible for halting the president’s original version of the travel ban. In the wake of the order, chaos ensued and hundreds of travelers were either prevented from boarding their flights to the United States or were detained on arrival and threatened with deportation. The courts quickly ruled that those travelers who already secured visas could not be deported, but scores of others lost money trying to reach the country.

The US government decided to settle the Darweesh v. Trump case, even though it was essentially moot after the president rescinded the original order and replaced it with a more properly vetted one. Under the terms of the settlement, no monetary damages will be provided to those caught up in the chaos, but the government has agreed to identify every individual who was improperly barred from entry, provide them with a list of free legal services groups that can help them apply for visas, and review their applications in good faith. However, the government stopped short of guaranteeing those applications would be approved.

Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel at the Federal Appellate court in Seattle, Washington heard oral arguments over one of the numerous lawsuits surrounding President Trump’s newest version of the travel ban. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that the Trump Administration could, in fact, tighten restrictions on people from those six Muslim-majority countries, but it also carved out exemptions for individuals with “bona fide” relationships to individuals residing in the United States (e.g., family members). After that decision, the administration issued directives outlining what it considered bona fide relations. The decision was almost immediately challenged in court, however, when relatives like grandparents were excluded from the government’s guidance policy.

A district court in Hawaii ruled against the administration, allowing grandparents—as well as aunts, uncles, and cousins—to be considered “close” relatives, therefore exempting them from the restrictions of the travel ban. The government then appealed that decision, setting up this week’s oral arguments in front of arguably the most liberal appeals court in the country; the same court that dealt a blow to Trump’s original travel ban.

No decision was issued after the first round of oral arguments, but the judges were overtly skeptical of the government’s interpretation of “bona fide” relationships. It seems likely that the judges could uphold the district court’s earlier ruling, allowing extended family members to travel to the United States until the Supreme Court hears cases against the order this fall.