Ben Cardin thinks America is “absolutely” in danger of stumbling into war. Or wars.
Syria, North Korea, the South China Sea, Ukraine—Cardin, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sees problems that could get out of hand all over the planet. And he hasn’t seen any kind of a plan or hint of a plan for any of them from an administration that worries him both for its understaffing and for being run by a president he says acts in ways that are “very irrational, against U.S. interests, and unpredictable.” And that, the Maryland Democrat says, “raises a concern as to whether he will do the right things under pressure.”
“There’s many areas where there could be a miscalculation that could lead to a shooting war. In every one of those circumstances, the Trump administration has not given us a strategy,” Cardin said, speaking to me on Monday afternoon in his Capitol Hill office for POLITICO’s Off Message podcast.
Cardin backed Trump’s 59-Tomahawk strike on a Syrian airfield in April, but long before the American military shot down a Syrian plane over the weekend, long before Russia warned that American planes could be targeted in retaliation, he’s felt that every conversation he’s tried to have on Syria has been “unsatisfactory as to getting a coherent plan.”
“We didn’t see anything before or after,” Cardin said of the Syria missile strike. “We don’t have any plan on how to bring an end to the multiple conflicts in that region.”
Cardin has had one conversation with President Donald Trump, at a social gathering for members of Congress a few weeks ago at the White House. He has faith in Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, and speaks with them frequently. But he’s not holding his breath for an Oval Office invitation—anyway, he doesn’t think Trump would be interested in what he has to say.
“I think it would be useful to have substantive conversations with the president of the United States,” Cardin said. “My understanding, and I’m not an expert in how President Trump does his business, he’s not the type of person who has lengthy policy exchanges with members of the Congress.”
Meanwhile, Cardin says he’s been having many of his own exchanges with foreign leaders about Trump. Many have been like a meeting last year he recalled having with Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe, arranged by the American embassy to check on his mental health.
“In sort of a smile, he said, ‘How about Donald Trump?’” Cardin recalled. “He was inferring that if America were such a model of human rights, how could Donald Trump be our nominee?”
Cardin said he’s had a lot of those unsettling conversations since November, with heads of state and ambassadors from allies whom he says are concerned about whether Trump will stand by its values and retain its credibility on democracy and human rights, but also with representatives of repressive regimes who dismiss any pressure he tries to put on them about adhering to global norms.
When Cardin ticks off the people who temper his anxiety about Trump’s behavior, he leaves Secretary of State Rex Tillerson off the list. Cardin voted against Tillerson’s nomination, and though he says that’s the past, he brings up many of the same concerns that prompted his ‘no’ in February. Republicans and Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee grilled Tillerson last week on his commitment to the traditions of promoting democratic values, and that’s why Cardin’s mind is on him. He called Tillerson a competent business leader who’s sincere about making the State Department run more efficiently, but not a leader with a deep enough appreciation for the kind of American leadership that he believes is critical.
“My concern is whether he will package our foreign policy within the values that have made America the great nation that it is, or whether it will be more transactional to other agenda items, sacrificing progress on what I think are key values for our country: good governance, anti-corruption, human rights,” Cardin said.
Cardin, one of the more hawkish Democrats when it comes to Moscow, is the grandson of Russian Jewish immigrants. He’s proud of the bill that passed the Senate, 98-2, to secure the sanctions against Russia. He accelerated movement on the legislation when he saw press reports that the White House was considering lifting the sanctions and returning properties seized in the final weeks of the Obama administration—“I thought, ‘Here we go, one thing is said, and another thing is done,’” he said—and firmly opposes any moves in the House to water down the bill. He’s optimistic about forcing Trump to shift slightly on Russia, but frustrated that this is a political fight that’s happening at all. “We should be spending our efforts against Russia, not about consolidating support in the United States,” Cardin complained.
Turning to domestic politics, Cardin was less rosy about the future of the health-care bill, and the future of the institutional mechanisms of the Senate. But if Republicans press ahead with working on the bill behind closed doors and have a floor vote on it without a hearing, Cardin said he’ll proudly join the Democratic efforts to grind all Senate business to a halt: “I’m fully on board with shutting this place down, using every procedural tool we have at our disposal.”
Cardin, 73, is up for re-election himself next year, though he’s not expected to have much of a race. But he believes 2018 will be a major Democratic wave because of the reaction to what’s happening on health care—and he wants his party to take political advantage of what he sees as an epic Republican mistake in the making.
What he doesn’t want is for Democrats to spend all next year talking about impeachment. Which is not to say he isn’t open to the idea: Cardin simply thinks senators should be careful to withhold public judgment in case they are in the position of holding an impeachment trial at some point. That might be the right way to go, he says, depending on what comes of Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s inquiry and a separate nonpartisan effort he hopes is set up.
“All those investigations should be done,” Cardin said, “so that we know what the facts are before we speculate about what the consequences should be.”