WASHINGTON – After introducing sanctions legislation on Russia and opposing Donald Trump’s nomination of Rex Tillerson for secretary of state, Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin is emerging as a leading Democratic critic of the president’s foreign policy.
“I think there’s a real possibility that we will disagree on significant points and I will be vocal about it,” Cardin said in an interview with Capital News Service.
As the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Cardin will play an influential role by either supporting or opposing the direction of the Trump administration’s foreign policy as it takes shape in the coming months.
However, Cardin faces obstacles to challenging Trump, primarily the Republican majority in both houses of Congress.
“It’s a democracy, so (Democrats) cannot play a dominant role” at this time, said Leon Aron, resident scholar and director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.
“At the same time, the ranking members are not without influence,” Aron added. “Cardin has proven his concern for human rights and the security of the U.S. over many years. Certainly the Republicans should listen to his advice.”
Cardin is not pleased with how Trump has approached a host of global issues.
“(Trump’s) use of social media as it relates to Russia, Taiwan, China, NATO, Mexico…has been extremely frightening to our traditional allies. It raises questions about America’s sincerity about working with these nations,” Cardin said.
Cardin publicly expressed doubts about Tillerson’s nomination, questioning both his qualifications and lack of diplomatic experience, and voted against his confirmation.
“Tillerson should play a major role (in foreign policy). Question is how much influence Tillerson will have with Trump and where they want to go,” Cardin said.
The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., expressed confidence in Tillerson, saying he “will serve the United States well.”
“In both my private meetings with (Tillerson) and in the hours of public testimony he offered before the Foreign Relations Committee, it has become clear he will be an effective leader at the State Department,” Corker said in his remarks on the Senate floor.
Many have raised concerns about the former ExxonMobil CEO’s business relations with Russian elites, including President Vladimir Putin.
“I think there’s good news and bad news. (Tillerson) probably knows how to deal with unsavory characters and that helps in his relationship with Russia,” Aron said. “He knows key players over there. However, he may decide business is business and agreements are important regardless of the long-term plans of Russia or the United States.”
“That won’t work with Putin because his plans are long-range and don’t coincide with the United States’ worldview…(Tillerson) will have to take off his ExxonMobil hat and put on the one of secretary of state,” he said.
Cardin will be watching the United States’ relationship with Russia closely.
“Both (political) parties have major reservations about Russia and its power…(Russia’s) activities are interfering with our elections and in Europe, and it requires us to show more strength,” the Maryland lawmaker said.
Cardin helped to introduce legislation Jan. 4 that would create an independent, nonpartisan commission to investigate Russia’s alleged interference in November’s presidential election.
A week later, Cardin partnered with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and other members of Congress to introduce comprehensive sanctions legislation on Russia.
“Now is the time to put partisanship aside and send a signal that the United States will not stand for Russia’s aggressive actions,” McCain said in a statement.
“Russia is not a friend,” Cardin said. “They act like an enemy by only doing things that attack us…hacking, supporting President Assad in Syria, (and) breaking the Minsk agreement in Ukraine.”
Trump’s apparently sympathetic views on Russia and Putin complicate matters, the senator said.
“There’s no rationale (for Trump’s praising of Putin),” Cardin said. “I have no idea why he’s doing what he’s doing. People say he has business interests in Russia, people say he admires Putin’s leadership, but I don’t know why he wants to show anything other than isolating Russia, which has been our government’s longstanding policy.”
There has been speculation that Trump might lift or loosen the sanctions that Congress has placed on Russia, although multiple high-ranking GOP members have warned Trump against doing so.
“If (Trump) were to release or reduce sanctions on Russia, that would be a possible signal that is very dangerous for U.S. national security interests,” Cardin warned, adding that some Republicans share his concerns.
Trump held phone calls with several foreign leaders, including Putin, last weekend.
Aron thinks that Trump and Putin had a mutual understanding not to discuss the sanctions during their phone call, and that Trump “took the correct stance” on talk of a summit between the two leaders in the coming weeks.
Europe’s relationship with the Trump administration, especially after Trump’s disparaging remarks about NATO, will be another focus for Cardin and foreign policy leaders, especially as it relates to Russia.
“Europe is a lot closer physically with Russia,” Cardin said. Europeans have “seen Russia’s physical integrity and know the consequences…There are European countries that are really fearful of Russia taking over land, and they understand dramatically firsthand that this is real. Russia needs to be checked.”
Thus far, the Trump administration has not painted a clear picture of its foreign policy objectives, although that may soon change. The Senate confirmed Tillerson Wednesday and he was sworn in at the White House hours later.
Cardin said he remains “concerned as to what their priorities will be.”
“I want to know that (Trump) recognizes that America is the leading voice in the world in promoting democracy and freedom of the press, and countries around the world who are struggling look to America for leadership,” the Maryland lawmaker said. “My main concern is that these countries know they have us to look up to and that they have a champion in Trump as president of the United States.”