Glasser: This is Susan Glasser, and welcome back this week to The Global POLITICO. I’m delighted to have as our guest Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland. He’s the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, which means he’s right in the middle of everything that we want to talk about at The Global POLITICO.
Senator Cardin, so I guess the inescapable subject in many ways, of course, is Russia these days, when it comes to foreign policy, and especially the Trump administration. First of all, what is going on with these sanctions? Congress passed them overwhelmingly, over the opposition of President Trump. Is there a genuine delay, do you believe, on the part of the administration in implementing them?
Cardin: Well, it’s a little bit early to tell whether they’re on track to impose them in a timely way. The first mandatory sanctions are supposed to be applied in January, but there is a process you have to go through. And the administration’s been late in meeting the deadlines on that process. So, we’re watching very carefully to make sure they, in fact, impose the mandatory sanctions on the due dates, but we do know there is a reluctance on the behalf of the Trump administration.
Just recently, President Trump said that he believes that Mr. Putin, when he said he didn’t know about interfering in our elections—or he thought he was sincere. Quite frankly, Russia intentionally interfered in our election, and Mr. Putin was behind that. And these sanctions need to be imposed.
Glasser: It is a concern of ours that Mr. Trump continues to believe Mr. Putin when he says that he did not interfere in our elections, when, in fact, we know Mr. Putin did. So, we are concerned as to whether President Trump will enforce the sanctions as passed by Congress, and we’ll be watching that very carefully.
Glasser: You know, somebody joked to me that Donald Trump has succeeded in doing what many presidents before him has not, which is creating a bipartisan foreign policy, at least on Russia sanctions, as a result of what he said publicly about Putin. Do you think that Republicans will continue to stick together with Democrats on the issue of holding Russia accountable, or do you see the politics changing?
Cardin: Well, the numbers were overwhelmingly in support of taking a tough stand against Russia. If Russia’s conduct continues—that is, if it continues to interfere in Ukraine, if it continues to be counter to what is right in Syria, if they continue to interfere in elections in Europe and the United States—I think Congress will remain united in demanding that action be taken against Russia.
Glasser: How serious do you believe the initial charges are from the Mueller investigation, and to what extent do they, do you think this portends an even worse relationship with Russia?
Cardin: So, what we do know—this is what we do know. We do know from our intelligence community that Russia had a design to discredit the U.S. elections, and took sides in favor of Mr. Trump over Hillary Clinton. We do now that they engaged individuals and entities to do cyber-attacks to get as much information as they possibly could, and of course, also used WikiLeaks to accumulate information, and released it in a strategic way that could affect our election, and certainly the credibility of our election.
That’s what we do know. We also know that there were contacts made between representatives of the Trump campaign and Russia. We know of several contacts that were made, and we also know contacts that were made by WikiLeaks to Donald Trump, Jr., and shortly thereafter, the candidate Donald Trump tweeted out information about WikiLeaks, which was known to be an entity against U.S. national security interests.
So, there are a lot of dots, and they’re starting to be connected, that show that Russia intentionally engaged Americans, and American’s cooperated, and we’ll see exactly where that leads.
Glasser: Well, what it does suggest is that there’s not going to be any reset with Russia any time soon. I spoke with an administration person recently who said things really might not have even hit bottom yet. Is that your assessment, as well?
Cardin: The relationship with Russia is an important relationship. We know that they interfered in our elections. We know that they’ve done things that are very much against our interests. They’ve done things that require us to take punitive action against Russia. That does not mean we can’t work with Russia where we have a common agenda. Russia is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council; we certainly need their help in isolating North Korea and their nuclear weapons violations.
So, we still need to work with Russia. But clearly, Russia’s done things that are contrary to our national security interest, and the United States must respond to those types of activities.
Glasser: So, tell us a little bit—this is really a chance on The Global POLITICO to reflect on what it’s like in the room in making foreign policy. What is it like these days on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee? You have this extraordinary situation, obviously, with the Republican chairman in open conflict with the President. He has said that other Republican senators privately agree with him, but that they’re not at liberty really to do so, since many of them are still running for reelection, and Senator Corker’s decided not to.
What do you make of all that? Do you think that the other senators do agree with Senator Corker? How has the conflict with Trump changed what you all are doing on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee?
Cardin: Well, I believe on foreign policy that there is little difference between the Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. We believe that the best course for containing North Korea’s nuclear program is through diplomacy, and we disagree with the language the President has used, and the fact that he’s made it more difficult for diplomacy to work.
We believe that in regard to the Iran nuclear agreement, that we have to enforce the agreement rigorously, but we don’t want the United States unilaterally withdrawing from that agreement. I think that’s what most Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee believe, and certainly in regard to Russia.
We believe that the initial actions taken by President Trump in embracing Mr. Putin was the wrong signal, and I think both Democrats and Republicans agreed on that, and the legislation we passed, I think verifies that.
Glasser: So, do you think Senator Corker is still in a position with his colleagues to get stuff done over the course of the next year and a half? I mean, are you feeling the impasse that he has with the President?
Cardin: I think Senator Corker is widely respected among both Democrats and Republicans in regards to all issues, but particularly foreign policy. So, yes, I think he will be a very important force for congressional activities related to foreign policy. I also believe that he is interested in America succeeding, so he would like to see as much unity as possible between the Trump administration and the Congress. At times that’s difficult. We understand that.
But I do think that Senator Corker will work with representatives of the Trump administration to try to give a united front with the Senate.
Glasser: Well, right. As we’ve learned, it’s a complicated thing, right? You know, there’s different factions in the Trump administration, and then of course there’s the president himself. So, tell us what is your view of how to think about who’s running foreign policy right now. What is your assessment of Secretary of State Tillerson, who’s obviously been publicly undercut by the President? Do you believe as his oversight committee that he’s doing a good job, or does he have the clout necessary to do the job?
Cardin: I think Secretary Tillerson has made several major mistakes. He hasn’t been the advocate for the Department of State the way he should have been. The president came in with a budget that cut his agency dramatically. Secretary Tillerson didn’t stand up against that cut. Diplomacy is a critical part of our national security. We haven’t seen that type of passion come from the Secretary of State.
And quite frankly, American values are represented by our diplomats, and I haven’t seen Mr. Tillerson put the highest priorities on American values. So, I think he has not been as helpful, and I think as a result, that we’ve seen a morale problem in the State Department.
Having said that, I think there have been times that Secretary Tillerson has been very much right on in regards to foreign policy issues, such as negotiation with North Korea, where President Trump has undercut his own Secretary of State.
So, there are times that I think Secretary Tillerson has been on the right track, and there are other times where he’s been on the right track, where the President has undercut his abilities.
Glasser: Well, it seems like one of your main critiques and that of a lot of people does have to do with how he’s actually running the State Department itself. You talked about the morale problem. In many ways it’s a meltdown. You had a very strong statement earlier this week—I think you’d talked about basically this is “a high-level decapitation of leadership” with losses of very senior Foreign Service officials and the like.
Tell us what you think is going on inside the State Department, and will Congress have a say in changing or blocking any of those plans?
Cardin: Well, there’s a role that Congress could play. Obviously, we hope that the budget we pass will be a repudiation of the Trump budget as it relates to the State Department. We also will make it clear about protecting particular priorities within the State Department that have not had that type of leadership at the State Department. We could do that.
What we can’t do is run the agency; that’s an executive function. And clearly, we’ve seen an exodus of some of the top career talent at the State Department. And there’s still a freeze at the State Department, despite the fact that the Office of Management and Budget has released an overall hiring freeze. So, we do need leaders at the State Department that will make it clear that diplomacy is a priority and support the mission. Congress will do everything we can to support that leadership, but at the present time, we haven’t seen it.
Glasser: What happens, like when you call up to try to get something done, or to complain about some of these things? Are they responsive to you? Do you feel like there’s a channel open? Do you get a sense that this is ideological?
Cardin: Well, I think there is clearly people at the State Department who very much agree. We try to put a spotlight on that. I think Ambassador Green at the USAID has made a real contribution to the mission of our foreign assistance. We are hoping there’ll be more leaders that will emerge that will do that.
But, it really does start with the President of the United States, and when you see the President of the United States diminish the importance by the budget he submits, and then you see the Secretary of State not standing up for the career diplomats, it is disheartening.
Glasser: So, they’ve made no effort with you, as the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee? Do you feel like you have a personal relationship with Tillerson?
Cardin: Yes, I have a personal relationship, and we’ve expressed ourselves, and I think we’ve made some progress, and I can point to particular functions that are stronger today, I think, as a result of Secretary Tillerson listening to not only me, but other members of the United States Senate, that have concerns about the direction we see the department going.
So, I think we’ve had some input; I don’t mean to say we haven’t. I think Secretary Tillerson has sought our advice. But overall, I think what is missing is a passion for our career Foreign Service personnel, and standing up for giving them the resources they need to carry out their mission.
Glasser: Yeah, well, it’s hard to argue with that, right? That’s almost uncontestable. So, do you think he is on the way out? Would they be able to confirm, do you think, another Secretary of State in this political environment?
Cardin: Well, clearly there’s been speculation as to how long Secretary Tillerson will be able to remain in office. There have been moments that have been uncomfortable between the Secretary and the President of the United States. He’s not the only cabinet-level person who’s had these types of issues with the President of the United States.
So, I’m not going to speculate as to whether he will remain Secretary of State or not. Clearly, he—if a vacancy occurs, there would be I think a pretty detailed confirmation process as to the next secretary. If there is a vacancy in the Secretary of State, the United States Senate will go through a pretty thorough confirmation process, whomever the President nominates, so it’s not going to be an automatic. We’re going to have a lot of questions to ask, considering what has happened during the first year of the Trump presidency.
Glasser: Well, that’s right. You raised some of the concerns on substance: North Korea; the Iran deal. What is happening behind the scenes right now with the Iran deal? I mean, basically, where last we left it, essentially President Trump kind of kicked the ball to Congress. So, what is your view of what Congress is going to end up doing?
Cardin: Congress has a limited role in regards to the nuclear agreement with Iran. We do have a review statute that was enacted into law where we review Iran’s compliance with the agreement, and we have certain requirements on the President to keep us informed. What we have seen so far is that Iran is in compliance with the nuclear part of the agreement, but certainly has violated non-nuclear issues.
So, I think Congress could play a role. We’ve already done that; we passed a bill this year imposing new sanctions on Iran for their non-nuclear violations. We can work with our European partners to impose sanctions against Iran for non-nuclear violations.
In regards to the nuclear agreement, we are controlled by the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement, and there, working with our European partners, we can certainly demand strict enforcement and that’s—I don’t know how much Congress can do in that regard, but certainly, we can support the administration.
Glasser: So, you don’t expect anything imminently to come before you?
Cardin: I think Congress will try to be cooperative with the President, but, quite frankly, within the nuclear agreement, we have to work with our partners. That’s why we said it’s very important to work with our European partners.
Glasser: So, a lot of this discussion around foreign policy is that, in a way because of the uncertainty surrounding President Trump, you hear a lot more about Congress, and especially about the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, than you have in a while. You guys had a pretty interesting hearing last week. I think it was the first time in 40 years a discussion—an open discussion—about the role of the president in being able to order a nuclear first strike. Is this Congress getting its voice back on foreign policy?
Cardin: Clearly, Congress has taken on a stronger role. You see that with the sanctions bill we passed with Russia—and, by the way, also with North Korea and Iran—that discretion that is normally given to the president has been taken over by Congress in our role as the policy arm of government.
So, we have been more prescriptive on the responsibilities of the president on foreign policy, and that’s Congress’s prerogative, and we’ve done that under President Trump. So, yes, we are taking a more active role.
And the nuclear command structure, which was developed during the Cold War for two nuclear superpowers with the concept of mutual destruction if either party decided to use it—that premise is no longer valid, because the chances of a nuclear conflict are more with a North Korea-type country than it is with a Russia or China-type country.
So, we could now have a more deliberative process under the presidential command for the use of nuclear weapons, and I think Congress is looking for a way to assert itself in that regard.
Glasser: Well, really, it is quite striking in that regard. What do you hear from foreign officials? I assume that many of them are coming to you with certain high levels of concern about what’s going on.
Cardin: You’re absolutely correct. I’ve had numerous discussions with foreign leaders who were trying to get as much insight as possible as to how America will respond to certain of our international challenges. They recognize that President Trump is not predictable, and that has been a subject we have talked about.
But, I think they are somewhat reassured when Congress interjects itself. We did that, quite frankly, on the Transatlantic Partnership and NATO where there was some doubt initially about the President’s commitment. Congress, in a nonpartisan manner, reinforced that Transatlantic Partnership and the NATO alliance. That, I think, was helpful.
So, there have been times where I’ve met with foreign leaders where I explained where our country’s commitments are solid, I think helps, and will continue to do that. But the President’s unpredictable—make no mistake about it—and that has its concerns with our traditional partners, whether they be in Europe, whether they be in the Pacific, in Asia, or whether they be in our own hemisphere.
Glasser: What is your advice, then, when they say, “How do I know what to pay attention to and what not to?” Do you tell them to read the tweets, or not? What’s your guide?
Cardin: Well, I usually tell people who are concerned about President Trump, whether they be Americans or foreigners, stay focused on the issues of concern. If you are talking in regards to the Iran nuclear agreement, let’s stay focused as to how we can keep Iran in compliance with the agreement and keep all parties in the agreement. This is a strategy we have to focus on.
If it is dealing with America’s commitment to maritime security in the China seas, then let’s develop a strategy working with Congress that will give you greater assurances. So, we try to find a path forward to make it clear that America will live up to its traditional commitments.
Glasser: Well, it’s interesting. You were just on a congressional trip over the last week to Bonn when the subject was the Global Climate Accord—and in a way, that was sort of the message, right, that you and other Americans there were sending, which is basically, “Well, there’s Trump’s policy, but there’s also America’s policy.” Right?
Cardin: You’re exactly right. Our message was very clearly, we are still in. We are in the Paris Climate Accords; we are in the international effort to deal with our climate commitments. America will meet its Paris targets, and we’re on target to do that. And that the President does not speak for this country. We have governors who are taking action; we have mayors who are taking action; Congress has taken actions. We had five senators speak in regards to that. We have private companies that are doing things; we have NGOs, and universities.
So, yes, exactly. We reassured the international community that the United States would, in fact, live up to its commitments, despite the fact what the President did was, I think, extremely dangerous to the international effort.
Glasser: Do you think people were reassured? What did you hear from the non-U.S. delegates when you were there?
Cardin: Our colleagues globally were extremely pleased to hear the message that we brought. They were very encouraged by that message. But make no mistake about it—there is only one U.S. There is only one President. And they know that the President can take action, or delay action, to make our efforts more difficult and to cede space to other countries that may not be as committed to the global priorities as America is.
Glasser: Well, that’s right. I mean, what if it was during the Obama administration, and it was a Republican senator going with the opposite message? There’s a certain risk, right? Historically, our politics stopped at the water’s edge. Would you have been mad at the Republican you for doing that?
Cardin: Well, yeah, it’s a very good point. We want to have a united policy. We think it’s President Trump who’s the outlier, not the business leaders, the governors, the mayors, the senators that were there. I think we are expressing the mainstream American message here. It’s not that we have a different view. President Trump says he wants to negotiate a better deal.
Well, under the Paris Accords, we can change our commitments—but quite frankly, we’re going to meet our commitments. So, I don’t think the President’s message is inconsistent with the responsibility we have to express America’s commitment to global climate change. He is hurting the international effort, but he won’t stop the American effort.
Glasser: Well, it must have been a very interesting trip for you, for sure. But I imagine, you also heard a lot about Russia, and I do want to come back to that, because people might not realize you played a key role, in some ways you could argue, in triggering some of Vladimir Putin’s fury at the United States by being the lead author, and helping to get past the original Magnitsky Act of sanctions on Russia.
How did you get into this? People might not know how you met my old friend Bill Browder, who I knew from Moscow way back when he—before he was a Putin opponent.
Cardin: Well, since my election to Congress, I’ve always been interested in human rights. I really do believe that’s America’s strength. Yes, we have a strong military; yes, we have a strong economy. But what really makes America the unique nation it is, is that we speak up about human rights, and anti-corruption, and good governance, and democratic institutions. That’s what America is known for. That’s what inspires people around the world with U.S. leadership.
So, I’ve been very active in the OSCE—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe—the U.S. Helsinki Commission—have been the chairman at times of that commission, and have brought to the attention of the American public, but also the international community, Russia’s violations of basic international human rights standards that they agreed to in the Helsinki Final Act. So, I’ve done that traditionally.
And during that period of time, it came to my attention that a young lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, representing an American company, had done what any lawyer should do, and that is if you discover corruption, report it to the appropriate authorities. He did that, and that was his responsibility. As a result, he was arrested, tortured, and killed, leaving a young family behind.
You know, we talk about human rights violations, and we talk about the numbers, but when you put a face on it, you can get people to respond. And Sergei Magnitsky became a rallying call about Mr. Putin and the direction he was leading Russia, a direction to take away the rights of its citizens to internationally-recognized protection.
So, as a result of the tragedy with Sergei Magnitsky, I was able—working with Senator McCain and others—to pass the Sergei Magnitsky Accountability Act, which imposed sanctions against those individuals in Russia that were responsible for his death, denying them the right to visit America or to use our banking system.
That message went beyond just the United States. Other countries followed suit, and it became a rallying point. And just in the last Congress, we were able to extend the Russia-specific statute to a Global Magnitsky Act, going against human rights violators in other countries where their own country does not hold them accountable.
I was very pleased to see that Canada has passed a similar law just recently, and other countries have followed suit, so it has become a real effort to say we are going to stand up against human rights abusers.
Glasser: Well, it’s interesting. It was just, I believe, the eighth anniversary just this week of Sergei Magnitsky’s death. But what people may also not realize is that the passage of those Magnitsky sanctions is what caused Russia to retaliate by banning adoptions by Americans, which was the ostensible subject of the Natalia Veselnitskaya meeting in Trump Tower, so it all kind of comes full circle—