House Republicans Push Back on Trump’s Foreign Policy

GOP leaders have crafted an agenda that bears little resemblance to their presidential candidate’s stated vision.

Representative Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (Andrew Harnik / AP)

One recurring question for the next five months will be whether Donald Trump will succeed in changing the Republican Party, or whether the leaders of the GOP will succeed in changing him.

On Thursday morning, House Republicans laid out their agenda on national security and foreign policy, and their 23-page packet of proposals looks very little like the vision Trump has outlined. His slogan of “America first” appears nowhere in the document. Nor does any mention of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, or a ban on Muslims entering the country. Where Trump has blasted trade deals and mused about imposing tariffs, House Republicans recommit themselves to promoting open markets and expanding free trade.

The national-security portion of Speaker Paul Ryan’s “A Better Way” agenda is largely a recitation of grievances with President Obama’s foreign policy and his approach to combatting terrorism. “American foreign policy is failing at nearly every turn,” the introduction reads. “In the past seven years, our friendships have frayed and our rivalries have intensified,” Ryan said in unveiling the proposal at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It is not too much to say our enemies no longer fear us and too many of our allies no longer trust us. And I think this is the direct result of the president’s foreign policy.”

Trump would say much the same thing. In fact, he did, during his formal foreign-policy address in April. But while House Republicans and their presumptive presidential nominee are in agreement about the failings of the Obama administration—on handling ISIS, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and so much else—they differ on a path forward. Staying true to Republican orthodoxy going back to the George W. Bush administration, the House leaders advocate a staunchly internationalist approach, rejecting both isolationism and what they see as Obama’s “leading from behind” disengagement from the world.

The policy paper includes only a token nod to a recent Trump talking point—that America’s NATO allies need to step up and pay more or be responsible for their own defense. “History has shown us time and again that the world can only be a safer place when America leads, and we need American leadership again,” Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in his remarks. The GOP’s plan “is a path that recognizes America can only be safe if we proactively engage abroad rather than hide behind our oceans and leave the most challenging problems for other to deal with.”

In a panel discussion accompanying the release of the report, the authors answered questions about Trump’s own proposals with predictable awkwardness. “You can’t ban an entire race or religion from coming into the country,” Representative Michael McCaul, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, told the moderator, Andrea Mitchell, when she asked about Trump’s Muslim ban. “What you need is a better vetting system.” While the report includes an entire section on improving border and interior immigration security, the closest it comes to addressing Trump’s signature “wall” proposal is to say, “We need more than just fencing.”

“This is a document,” McCaul told Mitchell, “that we hope the nominee will read and pay attention to.”

Representative Mac Thornberry, who heads the Armed Services Committee, declined to discuss Trump’s worldview at all but made it clear that the U.S. could not walk away from NATO. “The agenda we laid out today talks about the importance of alliances, as frustrating as it can be,” he said.

The GOP’s national-security agenda does branch out into other areas, calling for beefed-up cyber defenses and a public-diplomacy component to fighting terrorism using social media. As they have repeatedly, Republicans urge a more muscular strategy to defeat ISIS, but it is one based just as much on rhetoric as specific tactics. “Leaders in Washington should also level with the American people by calling the threat what it is,” the report says. “You cannot defeat an
enemy you refuse to define, so let’s state it plainly: We are at war with Islamist terrorists.” Yet while the Republicans declare war on paper, they say nothing about actually passing an authorization for the use of military force, which has been stalled in Congress for more than a year. The proposal is also silent on whether the president should deploy a ground combat force to Iraq, Syria, or Libya.

There is no requirement that Trump and other Republicans agree on a policy agenda. On domestic policy, he’ll need the approval of his party in Congress as much if not more than they need his. But a president’s authority over foreign and national-security policy is far greater. If House leaders want their agenda pursued, they’ll need Trump not only to win the White House, but to move in their direction when he does.