House Democrats are sending an implicit message that President Trump and his administration aren’t the only ones setting U.S. foreign policy.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her party are seeking to reassure foreign allies about U.S. policies, including the U.S. role in Syria and the broader Middle East, even as they move toward impeaching the president.
The most high-profile example came when Pelosi arrived in Jordan and Afghanistan over the weekend unannounced with seven other Democrats and one Republican.
The trip was planned months before Trump’s announcement of a withdrawal of troops from northern Syria, and it is common practice for lawmakers and U.S. officials not to announce trips to the Middle East beforehand for security reasons.
But the timing was notable coming amid heightened tensions between Trump and Democrats, who have launched a process that could lead to the president’s removal from office. It is also just more than a year before the presidential election, with the Democratic campaign to elect a nominee already at a fever pitch.
Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), who was on the trip, emphasized that the timing was just a coincidence. Still, the Syria withdrawal drastically altered the context of the conversations between the lawmakers and the leaders of both Jordan and Afghanistan, who expressed open concerns, Lynch said, about the commitment of the United States to its allies overseas.
“That was palpable,” Lynch said. “There is concern, I think, on everyone’s part.”
“The message to the Jordanians was: ‘The U.S. and Jordan have had a long relationship of mutual support, and we continue that,’ ” he added. “In Afghanistan, it was a similar expression of congressional support.”
Days before leaving on the trip, the House last week overwhelmingly passed a resolution opposing Trump’s decision. Just 60 Republicans opposed the measure.
And as if to underscore Democrats’ foreign policy efforts, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) released a rare joint statement this week with several of his European counterparts that expressed “regret” at Trump’s withdrawal and condemned the “abandonment” of the Kurds.
Asked about the statement, Engel said his goal was to “let our allies know that as far as I’m concerned, nothing has changed.”
Engel, who was also part of the delegation, said the trip was “very important” to reassure allies after Trump’s withdrawal.
“Our allies have to know that we are responsible allies, and we’re not going to cut and run on them,” he said. “Of course, when we travel, we don’t talk ill of the president or anybody else, we just talk about positive things and indicate to them by our presence that they knew why we were there.”
Asked for elaboration on the timing of and thinking behind the trip, Pelosi’s office did not comment on the record before the congressional delegation arrived back in Washington and did not respond to a follow-up request for comment after it returned.
Pelosi was originally scheduled to lead a congressional delegation to Afghanistan in January, before Trump scrambled plans for the trip by denying her the use of military aircraft.
When the trip finally happened, it came amid an uproar — both in Congress and from U.S. allies — over Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria.
Following a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump announced earlier this month he would withdraw U.S. forces from northeast Syria.
The withdrawal paved the way for Erdogan to move forward with a long-threatened offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces.
Ankara considers the Syrian Kurds terrorists connected with a Turkish insurgency inside Syria. But the United States relied on Kurdish forces to fight ISIS, an effort in which more than 11,000 Kurdish fighters were killed.
On Wednesday, Trump announced a five-day cease-fire brokered last week by Vice President Pence would become “permanent,” declaring victory despite the firestorm being ignited by his withdrawal.
Lawmakers, including many of Trump’s traditional GOP allies, have widely criticized Trump’s withdrawal as abandoning the United States’s Kurdish allies. Lawmakers have also expressed concerns that the move will allow ISIS to regroup as the Kurds focus more on fighting Turkey.
With that scene as the backdrop, Pelosi arrived Saturday with eight House members in Jordan, which has been worried about escaping ISIS fighters making their way over from neighboring Syria.
“With the deepening crisis in Syria after Turkey’s incursion, our delegation has engaged in vital discussions about the impact to regional stability, increased flow of refugees, and the dangerous opening that has been provided to ISIS, Iran and Russia,” Pelosi said in a statement after the Jordan stop.
In Afghanistan, the visit coincided with Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s own trip there, which Pelosi said allowed them to “briefly compare notes.”
The congressional group’s trip to Afghanistan also comes after peace talks with the Taliban were aborted after Trump invited and then disinvited Taliban leaders to Camp David days before the Sept. 11 anniversary — another series of events that sparked bipartisan backlash.
“Meeting with and hearing directly from our troops and diplomats on the ground is essential for Congress to conduct effective oversight of our mission in Afghanistan,” Pelosi said in a statement after the Afghanistan stop. “We will return to Washington strengthened with the facts and the first-hand knowledge we have gathered at this critical time for our nation’s Afghanistan policy and inspired by the courage of our servicemembers and diplomats on the front lines.”
Rep. Mac Thornberry (Texas), the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee and the lone Republican on the delegation, said the timing of the trip was originally meant to coincide with when the results of Afghanistan’s elections would be known. Preliminary results from the September election had been expected Oct. 19, but have been delayed.
Still, Thornberry said, since the trip did end up happening after Trump’s decision in Syria, it was important for members of both parties to reassure allies and U.S. troops alike.
“I do think after the Syria decision that it was important to touch base with key allies, Jordan, Afghanistan, and convey at least bipartisan support for them in the Congress,” said Thornberry, who has announced he will not seek reelection in 2020.
“While I don’t think we got indications from our allies or our military that anybody’s panicking about the reliability of the United States,” he added, “obviously there are concerns about what further decisions the United States may make that will affect them or their mission.”
Mike Lillis contributed.