November 7, 2018
How Will the Outcome of the Midterms Affect Trump's Policy Options?
By Ashish Kumar Sen
We asked our analysts what they believe are the policy implications of this outcome. Here’s what they had to say*:
Foreign Policy and National Security
Daniel Fried, distinguished fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative and Eurasia Center. He played a key role in designing and implementing US policy in Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. As special assistant and National Security Council senior director for Presidents Clinton and Bush, ambassador to Poland, and assistant secretary of state for Europe, Fried crafted the policy of NATO enlargement to Central European nations and, in parallel, NATO-Russia relations, thus advancing the goal of Europe whole, free, and at peace.
“President Trump has spent much of his energy assailing America’s allies and even the idea of alliances rooted in common values, instead using language of nationalism, unilateralism, and deal-making cynicism. The elections were not about foreign policy, but their result may strengthen the political base for American support for a rules-based international order which favors democracy.
“Partly as a result of Putin’s aggression and interference in American democracy, Democrats have rediscovered their inner Harry Truman—a commitment to a strong foreign policy in defense of freedom. They may be able to make common cause with Republicans of like mind. Nationalism is no longer the anointed wave of America’s future.”
Barry Pavel, senior vice president, Arnold Kanter chair, and director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. From October 2008 to July 2010, he served as the special assistant to the president and senior director for defense policy and strategy on the National Security Council staff, serving both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama. Follow him on Twitter @BarryPavel.
“The return to divided government might suggest to some that US foreign policy led by President Trump will now be more constrained and less bold. Certainly there will be cases where that may be true. However, this White House may very well seek to make deals with the Democratic opposition in the House across a wide range of foreign and defense policy issues.
“Many of the foreign policy issues on our plate, at the advent of the era of Great-Power Competition, are simply too pressing to be left unresolved, even in the context of our heretofore polarized political discourse."
Michael Carpenter, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. He is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense with responsibility for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia, the Balkans, and Conventional Arms Control. Prior to joining the Department of Defense, Carpenter served in the White House as a foreign policy adviser to Vice President Joe Biden and as director for Russia at the National Security Council.
Follow him on Twitter @mikercarpenter.
“The midterm elections likely won't have much effect on the administration's foreign policy. The findings of the Mueller investigation, which are likely to come out in the coming few months, will have a much greater impact either by constraining Trump's foreign policy choices vis-à-vis Russia or by emboldening the administration to pursue a full-blown detente.”
Robert A. Manning, senior fellow with the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and its Strategic Foresight Initiative at the Atlantic Council. Previously, his previous roles include senior strategist at the National Counterproliferation Center in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and director of long-range energy and regional/global affairs at the US National Intelligence Council’s Strategic Futures Group. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.
“Democratic control of the House is likely to have a significant impact on Trump’s foreign and defense policies. Trump himself order the Department of Defense to reduce the defense budget from $733 billion to $700 billion. So expect the Democrats to reinforce that. There will also be tough oversight and accountability on military operations in Afghanistan, Yemen, and in Africa and pressure to reduce some operations.
“With regard to foreign policy, I think the Democrats will counter Trumps ‘anti-globalism’ with more support for US alliances in Europe and Asia, and toward multilateral institutions. Expect the Democrats to be tougher on Russia, and depending on what the Mueller investigation concludes in terms of any 2016 election collusion, that could have an impact as well.
“There will be tougher scrutiny of Trump’s North Korea policy and dubious claims of success.
“Expect more frequent hearings and demands for regular reporting on the state of diplomacy.
“On trade and China, I suspect the Democrats will generally be supportive of Trump’s aggressive posture. One key issue will be ratification of NAFTA 2.0. Some think Democrats in control will make ratification more difficult. But the new agreement addresses some key Democratic concerns about NAFTA, particularly labor rights, so ratification might not be any more difficult than it would have been if the Republicans held the House.”
Evelyn Farkas, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. She served from 2012 to 2015 as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia, responsible for policy toward Russia, the Black Sea, Balkans, and Caucasus regions and conventional arms control. From 2010 to 2012 she served as senior adviser to the supreme allied commander Europe and special adviser to the secretary of defense for the NATO Summit. Follow her on Twitter @EvelynNFarkas.
“The midterm election results don’t spell radical change when it comes to holding the president’s feet to the fire on nonproliferation issues and North Korea, or on US policy toward Russia. However, expect to see more aggressive oversight and explanation to the American people of what the Russian government has been doing and continues to do infringing on the sovereignty of the United States and our allies and partners and assaulting our democracy.
“Expect louder voices defending democracy in America and around the world, expect a unified bipartisan cry on behalf of human rights. Expect greater pressure on the White House to end senseless wars like the one in Yemen and the Syrian civil war.“
Matthew Kroenig, deputy director for strategy in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Follow him on Twitter @kroenig.
“The election results will have two major implications for US foreign policy. With a Democratic House and a Republican administration, you can expect more hearings with executive branch officials testifying before Congress and more scrutiny of the defense budget.”
Samantha Sultoon, senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global Business and Economics Program and the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. She is a former sanctions policy expert for the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
“The increase in veterans elected to the House should feature well on national security issues, particularly since this is one policy area where both parties occasionally find common ground. While it’s unlikely to generate a policy shift in key theaters, such as Syria, there is potential for cooperation across the aisle on domestic counterterrorism issues.
Russia and Sanctions
Brian O’Toole, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global Business and Economics Program. He is a former senior adviser to the director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) at the US Department of the Treasury. Follow him on Twitter @brianoftoole.
“The incoming Democrat majority in the House will almost certainly put Russia issues back in the crosshairs. New Russia sanctions after the lame duck are almost a given. Beyond sanctions, House-led investigations into Russian meddling in the United States and financial entanglements of senior Trump administration figures with Russia and other foreign governments of interest (Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for instance) would seem to be high on the foreign policy priority list for the left. Broadly, expect dark money and anti-corruption to be a focus of the next Congress.”
Samantha Sultoon, senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global Business and Economics Program and the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
“Congress’s increased interest in using economic and financial sanctions to achieve foreign policy objectives is unlikely to waiver with the new composition of both the House and Senate in January.”
Fran Burwell, distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council’ Future Europe Initiative. Follow her on Twitter @FranBurwell.
“The Democratic capture of the House will be good for transatlantic relations as key new chairs —Reps. [Eliot] Engel and [Gregory] Meeks—are supporters of the relationship. But more important will be how the president seeks to pursue US-EU trade talks as he gears up his own re-election campaign.”
Nicholas Dungan, nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative. Follow him on Twitter @Nicholas_Dungan.
“The probability of even greater division and gridlock in the United States will mean even less scope for US leadership and, therefore, will make it harder for Europeans and Americans to agree. They already disagree on quite a few things, not least the Iran nuclear accord.
“What is to be feared is that the culture wars in the United States become even more entrenched in Europe and that the European parliamentary elections in May 2019 turn into a clash of civilizations just like the midterms did.”
Samantha Sultoon, senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global Business and Economics Program and the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
“The election outcome is unfortunately unlikely to shift increased congressional attention on to Brexit. Given the significant stake the United States has in the outcome of the UK-EU negotiations across trade, financial services, national security, sanctions cooperation and a host of other issues, the lack of strategic engagement with European allies is a lost opportunity that is unlikely to be regained with the election results.”
William F. Wechsler, senior adviser for Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council and interim director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. His previous posts include deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combatting terrorism and deputy assistant secretary of defense for counternarcotics and global threats.
“For decades, leaders in the Middle East understood that their countries were more secure if their relationships with the United States were maintained on a bipartisan basis, focused on common national security interests.
“In recent years, however, several of these relationships have become increasingly politicized, and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi is merely the latest but by far the most prominent issue to resonate strongly among the American public.
“As a result the new US Congress is much more likely call into question long-established aspects of US relations with its traditional regional allies, by scrutinizing weapon sales, raising human rights concerns, and restricting American support to their perceived militarily adventurism.”
Richard LeBaron, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council with a special focus on the Gulf region. He served as deputy chief of mission and chargé d'affaires at the US Embassy in London, as the US ambassador to Kuwait, and as deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @RBLeBaron.
“I would expect greater scrutiny of US policies in the Gulf. Democrats in control of the House will likely ask a lot more questions about US support for Saudi and Emirati actions in Yemen.”
Faysal Itani, a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @faysalitani.
“In principle, we should welcome the oversight in foreign policy from the legislative branch, and if having an opposition majority is what it takes to exercise it then so be it. The trouble is that in the current polarized climate it’s quite likely that domestic political opposition will shape foreign policy initiatives in the House.
“Yemen is one issue of contention on which Democrats have increasingly opposed the current policy. Regardless of where one stands on the issue, it is too important to be decided by a partisan political fight.
“That said, with one party controlling both chambers it was likely there wouldn’t be a debate about it at all. Iran is another possible point of contention, but I think that ship has sailed frankly, and there is no reversing the momentum of President Trump’s policies on the JCPOA, sanctions, etc.
“I believe Trump is also vulnerable on the military deployment in Syria, which I expect will eventually come under Democrat scrutiny as the ISIS presence is marginalized.”
Aaron Stein, resident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @aaronstein1.
“Turkey lost a friend in the House: Pete Sessions. Other than that, it is back to business as usual.”
Barbara Slavin, director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative. Follow her on Twitter @barbaraslavin1.
“By itself, the flip of the House of Representatives from Republican to Democratic control will not fundamentally alter the course of US policy toward Iran. However, President Trump will face harsher scrutiny from the House on a range of issues, including US support for Iran’s arch regional foe, Saudi Arabia.
“Expect more pressure from Capitol Hill for an end to the Saudi-led war in Yemen, where half the population of 22 million is now threatened with starvation. There will also be continued scrutiny over whether the de facto Saudi leader, Mohammad bin Salman, ordered the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
“The House may also hold hearings on the efficacy and adverse consequences of the Trump administration’s reimposition of sanctions on Iran, despite its continued compliance with the nuclear deal. These sanctions are furthering straining US relations with European allies while encouraging Iran to seek to thwart these restrictions through a variety of non-transparent means. If Iran leaves the deal, there will be a new proliferation crisis in the Middle East at a time when a US-North Korea denuclearization agreement looks increasingly shaky.”
Nabeel Khoury, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He is a former deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Yemen. Follow him on Twitter @khoury_nabeel.
“With changing leadership in the House, I expect a renewed push to get a War Powers Act passed in the House and a negotiated one passed later by the Senate.
“With Eliot Engel of New York heading the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Ro Khanna backing him up, and Ted Lieu and Adam Smith in the House Armed Services Committee, the White House will be pressured to end US participation in the war in Yemen and to lean on the Saudis to stop the aerial bombardment and participate seriously in a new peace effort.”
Jason Marczak, director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. Follow him on Twitter @jmarczak.
“A divided Congress reinforces the importance of bipartisan cooperation in the US approach to Latin America.
“Most urgently, a divided Congress will be tasked with voting on ratification of the USMCA—a trade deal that will maintain North America as a unit in commercially competing with the rest of the world.
“Whether it’s assistance for Colombia or Central America or legislation that exerts additional pressure on the Maduro regime in Caracas, political compromise will be imperative for the United States to play a leadership role in some of the top issues facing the region. What will be critical is politics not getting in the way of policy.”
Paula Garcia Tufro, deputy director in the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. She most recently served as director for development and democracy at the National Security Council.
“Despite Republicans having consolidated their control of the Senate, Democratic control of the House will usher a new era of accountability and re-establish checks and balances in the policy making process, including in foreign policy.
“That said, the Trump administration has demonstrated a willingness to advance its policy agenda via executive action, and that trend is expected to continue.
“With several leading Democratic members of Congress set to take over powerful committees in the House, armed with subpoena power, expect increasing pressure on the Trump administration to explain its plans and actions, including the administration's threats to cut off aid to Central America in response to the flow of migrants.
“On foreign assistance more broadly, expect continued bipartisan pushback on the administration’s stated desire to slash foreign assistance levels, which could have significant implications on longstanding foreign policy priorities in the region, including Colombia.
“On trade, new agreements will likely face greater opposition in Congress, with the first test case coming up in early 2019 when the Congress is expected to vote on the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement.”
J. Peter Pham, vice president for research and regional initiatives and director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.
“Unlike some other regions of the world, Africa generally does not suffer from wild swings in policy with changes in US administration or congressional majorities. While Republicans and Democrats will differ on emphases, by and large US-Africa relations have traditionally enjoyed broad bipartisan support and, at the personal and working levels, a good deal of comity that contributes, over time, to a largely consistent policy—witness the near-unanimous congressional renewal of AGOA during the Obama administration and the recent equally wide support for the BUILD Act that President Trump signed into law last month.”
Bronwyn Bruton, director of programs and studies and deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. Follow her on Twitter @BronwynBruton.
“Marsha Blackburn winning retiring Senator Bob Corker's seat will effectively end an era in US-Africa relations. Advocates have long relied on Corker’s deep interest in the African nations to move policy and it’s unclear who will fill the vacuum he’s leaving behind. Unfortunately, it seems likely that US engagement with Africa will decline even further.”
Climate and Energy
Randolph Bell, director of the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center.
“The Democratic Party’s retaking of the House will not have an impact on legislative outcomes around energy and climate because the Senate is still in Republican hands and there is little bipartisan interest in compromise. However, House Democrats have indicated that they will conduct a number of investigations into the administration, which may impact the deregulatory goals of the EPA and the Department of the Interior, given the allegations against former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and current Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. Simply managing the bureaucratic hassle of a House investigation could have a considerable slowing effect on the administration’s agenda in these two areas.
“Ironically, Democratic gains in the House came at the expense of nearly half of the Republican members of the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, including caucus co-founder and co-chair Congressman Carlos Curbelo (R-FL-26). This is a loss for the slowly-building effort to find a bipartisan path forward on climate change, reducing the already minimal chances of bipartisan climate legislation in the near term, especially with neither a strong bipartisan legislative agenda nor full takeover of government by the Democratic Party on the horizon.
“Finally, the rejection of a carbon tax/fee in Washington state for the second time since 2016 and the defeat of the anti-fracking initiative in Colorado are wins for oil and gas companies, which spent millions to defeat both efforts. However, Democratic gains in state legislatures and the growing frequency of climate and renewable energy ballot measures in other states suggest that as the administration continues to walk back and deprioritize climate issues from its agenda, statehouses around the country will continue to take the lead and thus are emerging as key—and possibly quite expensive—battlegrounds.”
Richard L. Morningstar, founding chairman of the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center. From 2012 to 2014, he served as US ambassador to Azerbaijan. Previously, he was the US Secretary of State’s Special Envoy for Eurasian Energy.
“There were mixed results from yesterday’s election. Those results will have little effect on foreign policy as well as US energy and climate policy. The Senate, which traditionally has a greater role than the House in foreign policy, will be more supportive of Trump given the Republicans have a greater majority and Republican critics of Trump are no longer in the Senate. A Democratic House could lead to greater bipartisan efforts in the energy and climate change area and, at the least, provide a check on noxious legislation.”
Bart Oosterveld, C. Boyden Gray fellow on global finance and growth and the director of the Global Business and Economics Program at the Atlantic Council.
“I still expect passage of the USMCA agreement (‘new NAFTA’), though Democrats in the House of Representatives may push for adjustments. Overall, the new agreement’s updated rules of origin and minimum wage requirements make it a hard bill for Democrats to vote against.
“With the federal deficit nearing a trillion dollars, the new political equilibrium makes it ever more unlikely that something serious will be done to curb the federal debt, already close to 100 percent of GDP. The prospects of raising taxes and/or curbing spending are slim to none in this environment. The strong economy should prompt the government to bring the debt down towards pre-crisis levels to regain capacity to respond to future economic setbacks. Instead, it looks like the fiscal picture will continue to deteriorate in the next few years.
“I also see an increased risk of battles over budget priorities and the debt ceiling, including the risk of a government shutdown. The government has come irresponsibly close to shutdowns and doubts over debt servicing capacity in recent years and renewed ‘brinksmanship’ on this issue is a risk to financial market stability through 2020.”
Bharath Gopalaswamy, director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. Follow him on Twitter @BharathGopalas1.
“The results of the election indicate that President Trump’s America First agenda still has enough support among Americans. The governments of South Asia should recalibrate their expectations of US leadership and, more importantly, the extent of US engagement with the region.”
James B. Cunningham, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. He is a former US ambassador to Afghanistan, Israel, and acting permanent representative to the United Nations.
“The new Congress will be focused on domestic issues, giving the administration the space to try to develop its South Asia policy.”
Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director of communications, editorial, at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.
*Please check back for updates.