Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., is determined to use his seat on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee to stymie the Donald Trump administration as it doubles down on support for Saudi Arabia against Iran. He also wants to send a message to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the consequences of Turkey purchasing the S-400 missile defense system from Russia and seeks to reestablish a bipartisan consensus on a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor, Van Hollen detailed his plans to stop Trump’s end run around Congress to continue supporting the Saudi-led coalition in its war against Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
During the interview in his office, Van Hollen said he “will be working through the appropriations process” on the Senate foreign aid panel to place new restrictions on US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
He also vowed to close a loophole that the Trump administration recently used to bypass a congressional hold on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates by citing an emergency threat posed by Iran. The Maryland Democrat argued that Trump has not provided “good evidence” to justify the claim.
“When it comes to the appropriations process, which is one of the few bills that has to pass the Congress, I intend to attach a provision that would essentially eliminate this loophole,” Van Hollen told Al-Monitor. “You have a growing number of Republicans, who regardless of where they may stand on this particular issue, are very nervous about the executive branch trampling over the independent powers of Congress.”
A handful of Van Hollen’s Republican colleagues on the foreign aid panel joined Democrats earlier this year to end US support for the Yemen war, which Trump ultimately vetoed. Van Hollen’s counterparts on the House Appropriations Committee attached the same language to their foreign aid spending bill as well as a provision to sunset the 2001 military authorization within eight months.
The 2001 authorization is used as the legal basis for military action against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, but Van Hollen has voiced concern that the Trump administration could use it to justify military action against Iran.
“I certainly would support the action to get rid of it unless the administration makes absolutely clear that it does not give them any kind of authority to act militarily with respect to Iran,” said Van Hollen. “If you read the 2001 authorization, there is absolutely no legal authority that would justify taking military action against Iran. As people who follow these issues closely know, Iran has actually been primarily involved in military actions against al-Qaeda and certainly military actions against [the Islamic State].”
Van Hollen has also helped author legislation that became part of the Senate’s annual defense authorization bill this year. The provision would bar the transfer of F-35 fighter aircraft to Turkey unless Ankara eschews its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system.
“We have a situation where you’ve got the current government of Turkey that has departed in significant ways from some of the shared values that we have in NATO,” said Van Hollen. “You have a president who has essentially shut down freedom of the press in Turkey, again locked up a lot of political prisoners, wants to redo major elections that he loses like the election in Istanbul. That’s an important NATO ally, but I will say that President Erdogan is testing people’s patience when it comes to their role in the alliance.”
He noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin “is doing everything he can to divvy up members of the alliance to turn them against one another. And by purchasing the S-400, Erdogan would be falling prey to Putin’s efforts to destabilize the alliance.”
Similar provisions are also in two separate House spending bills.
“The US military has been very clear that the S-400 poses an unacceptable risk,” he said, noting that the Trump administration has recently sided with lawmakers on the issue.
But he was more skeptical of the White House’s long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, calling it “doomed from the start” and “lopsided in support of [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s goals.”
Van Hollen cited the administration’s elimination of Palestinian aid, arguing that the peace plan “was based on a flawed premise from the beginning.” He also said lawmakers are “looking at a number of proposals with respect to making it very clear that the US policy remains in support of a viable two-state solution in the region.”
Below is the full transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity:
Al-Monitor: Let’s start off with the latest developments in the Persian Gulf. The other week the Trump administration invoked an emergency to get around Congress’ hold on arms sales to the UAE and Saudi Arabia. You vowed to “close this loophole in the appropriations process.” So specifically, can you tell us how you intend to do that and what it would look like?
Van Hollen: Just for the setting here, you’ve got the president of the United States and the State Department — the secretary of state — really abusing this emergency provision in the law with the express goal of circumventing the United Sates Congress. As you know, the way this normally works is that they notice the Congress with respect to arms sales. The Congress then has a period of time in which to review it. Any member of Congress can file the joint resolution of disapproval, which then goes through the process in the House and Senate. The administration has concocted a reason not to go through the normal process simply because they recognize that it would encounter a lot of resistance in the United States Senate and the House of Representatives.
Here you have a president who is just going out of his way to bow down to the Saudi regime. You have a president who has looked the other way in the aftermath of the [Jamal] Khashoggi murder. You have a president who has looked the other way in the face of ongoing human rights atrocities. And you have a president who has looked the other way with respect to the way the Saudis have engaged in the brutal war in Yemen. And so that’s why the Congress would likely have passed a resolution of disapproval. Obviously, that would have then been subject to a veto.
The president has claimed that he’s invoking his emergency powers because of the situation vis-à-vis Iran but has provided no good evidence to support his claim that we’re in any more of an emergency situation with Iran other than the fact that they helped manufacture a crisis with Iran as well.
When it comes to the appropriations process, which is one of the few bills that has to pass the Congress, I intend to try to attach a provision that would essentially eliminate this loophole. We’ll have a healthy debate on that issue, but you have a growing number of Republicans, who regardless of where they may stand on this particular issue, are very nervous about the executive branch trampling over the independent powers of the Congress.
Al-Monitor: Another issue you see at least some bipartisan nexus with at least a few Republicans is Yemen, and there have been calls to also use the appropriations process to defund support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Is that something else you might try to do and how would that work?
Van Hollen: Yes, that’s another avenue that we’re looking at. As you know, because I think you reported on it, the House of Representatives included a provision in the [state and foreign operations appropriations bill] that would prohibit the administration’s current involvement with Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen. I will be working through the appropriations process to try to accomplish a similar goal.
Al-Monitor: And turning to Iran specifically, you’ve co-sponsored a bill that bars the Trump administration from taking military action against Iran. You’ve also opposed the president’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal.
At the same time, recently at the Council on Foreign Relations, you voiced concerns that the administration may be trying to use the 2001 [Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF)] to lay the groundwork for military action against Iran. Your House Appropriations counterparts have passed an amendment that would sunset the 2001 AUMF within eight months. On the Senate side, is that action you would also support?
Van Hollen: Given the risk that the administration is going to abuse the 2001 authorization, I would support the action to get rid of it. I certainly would support the action to get rid of it unless the administration makes absolutely clear that it does not give them any kind of authority to act militarily with respect to Iran. One approach, of course, is to get rid of the 2001 AUMF altogether. Another approach would be to make it very clear that the 2001 AUMF does not provide any authority to take military action in Iran. I probably support either of those approaches.
Just to make it very clear, if you read the 2001 authorization, there is absolutely no legal authority that would justify taking military action against Iran. As people who follow these issues closely know, Iran has actually been primarily involved in military actions against al-Qaeda and certainly military actions against [the Islamic State], which is the successor to al-Qaeda. The notion that they could be considered an ally or somehow the offspring of al-Qaeda is ludicrous on its face.
Al-Monitor: And over the weekend we saw somewhat of a diplomatic whiplash. The Trump administration is now calling for talks with Iran without preconditions. In a matter of a few hours, the Iranians came out and refused it. With this weekend’s development — talks without preconditions — is the Trump administration now taking the right approach, and if not, what does the president need to be doing differently?
Van Hollen: Well, I’m in favor of talks with Iran. I think it would make sense to sit down with the Iranians, but you have to look at it from everyone’s perspective here. I mean from the Iranian perspective, the Trump administration began by tearing up the nuclear agreement. They obviously have questions about what’s there to gain from sitting down with the president of the United States and the secretary of state of the administration that tore up an agreement between Iran and the United States.
I think this administration has been grossly negligent when it comes to our policy toward Iran, and by tearing up the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], they have taken off the constraints that were applied through that agreement with respect to Iran’s nuclear program. And Iran is now of course threatening to exceed some of the limitations in parts of that agreement.
All that being said, I’m all for discussions. But I think the administration is going to have to reconsider parts of its policies if they expect those discussions to be fruitful.
Al-Monitor: Another issue you’ve been quite outspoken on recently has been the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, you called on Congress to “pass legislation calling for the protection of the human rights of Israelis and Palestinians and opposing any actions that sabotage a future two-state solution.” So specifically, what sort of legislation are you proposing here?
Van Hollen: My position really is in the mainstream of recent bipartisan American foreign policy supporting a two-state solution. The idea that if you want to have a Jewish state that is also a democracy and observes the human rights of all its people, you’re going to need a two-state solution. That is also required in order to provide for the understandable aspirations of the Palestinian people for self-determination. We’re looking at a number of proposals with respect to making it very clear that US policy remains in support of a viable two-state solution in the region. We’re looking at a number of proposals to try to accomplish that goal.
Al-Monitor: Are you coalescing around any one thing right now?
Van Hollen: We’re just having discussions with our colleagues right now. I’m happy to keep you posted.
Al-Monitor: And the US-Israeli relationship itself is becoming a divisive issue in the 2020 primary. Your colleague Senator [Bernie] Sanders a couple of years ago even went so far as to float withholding military aid to Israel as leverage. Would you go this far?
Van Hollen: I have not supported withholding US assistance to Israel. I think Israel remains a good friend and strong ally. I have very deep disagreements with the policies that have been deployed by Prime Minister Netanyahu. You have the president of the United States who has departed from bipartisan US foreign policy by essentially giving a green light to a lot of Netanyahu’s actions that I think undermine prospects of a two-state solution. But my view is the United States will continue to maintain its strong security commitment to the State of Israel.
Al-Monitor: In the same vein, when you had last year’s Gaza protests, you had Israelis shooting at Palestinian protesters, killing several of them. At the time, another colleague of yours from Vermont, Senator [Patrick] Leahy, said “individuals or units involved in the shooting should be prohibited from receiving US training or equipment” under the Leahy Law, which he off course he authored. Is that a statement you agree with? So maybe not going so far as to condition [foreign military financing] but looking at specific actions that Israel has taken under the Leahy Law.
Van Hollen: I’m going to have to review that. I have to look more closely at what Senator Leahy said exactly.
Al-Monitor: One of the things I found particularly striking covering AIPAC this year was in the front row you had people in MAGA hats, people with Trump-Pence 2020 protesters. So as the relationship becomes more of a partisan issue, what do pro-Israel groups like AIPAC need to do to return to the bipartisan roots in the US-Israel relationship?
Van Hollen: You have a current situation where the president of the United States is going all in in the reelection of the prime minister of Israel. It’s, in my view, an inappropriate position for the president of the United States to take in the middle of an election. But that apparently is the primary goal right now of President Trump with respect to the upcoming new elections in Israel.
I would hope that all the major Jewish organizations in the United States would coalesce around what has been bipartisan US policy to support a two-state solution as the only way to accomplish the goals that I expressed earlier. And I think that it’s going to be important that people stick with their previous statements of support for that goal. Not all, but most, major Jewish organizations have endorsed the idea of a two-state solution. As the debate continues in Israel about whether or not that is what the future holds, I hope that all of us will work together to stand by what has been the bipartisan US foreign policy position.
Al-Monitor: And moving to Turkey. A recent bill you co-sponsored just made it into the [National Defense Authorization Act]. It basically says that if Ankara gets the S-400 Russian missile defense system, they cannot have the F-35 fighter jets. If they do proceed with the S-400 sale, do we need to reevaluate Turkey’s position in NATO?
Van Hollen: Again, we have a situation where you’ve got the current government of Turkey that has departed in significant ways from some of the shared values we have in NATO. You have a president who has essentially shut down freedom of the press in Turkey, locked up a lot of political prisoners, wants to redo major elections that he loses like the election in Istanbul. I still view Turkey as the Republic of Turkey. That’s an important NATO ally. But I will say that President Erdogan is testing people’s patience when it comes to their role in the alliance.
And this effort to purchase a major defensive weapons system — the S-400 — from Russia, is exhibit A of why a lot of people have concerns. Russia’s an adversary, certainly an adversary of the NATO alliance. [President Vladimir] Putin is doing everything he can to divide members of the alliance to turn them against one another. And by purchasing the S-400, Erdogan would be falling prey to Putin’s efforts to destabilize the alliance.
This is a really important issue. I’m glad the Trump administration has come around. We’ve been at this for several years now. I offered a similar amendment in the appropriations bill last year, that we had succeeded in getting included in the appropriations bill last year. The final version got watered down in the negotiations last year because the Trump administration intervened to try to water it down. But the good news is that the US military has been very clear that the S-400 poses an unacceptable risk. And Congress is very firm on a bipartisan basis when it comes to the issue.
I just want to be very clear. I want to see Turkey get the F-35 and not move forward with the S-400. And the United States has offered them the Patriot defense system instead. That would be the best course of action. That would be the course of action Turkey would take if it’s a true NATO partner.
Al-Monitor: And last time President Trump spoke with President Erdogan on the phone, he made the decision to withdraw US troops from Syria. You put out a statement opposing that as it would open the door for Turkey to attack the Kurds. In the meantime, what we’ve seen since then, the Kurds have started to talk to [President Bashar al-]Assad, who has largely won the country’s civil war except for Idlib and the Kurdish-controlled areas. Even some of our Gulf partners have resumed diplomatic ties. So a broader Syria question: Does the United States need to resume diplomatic engagement with Assad to continue having leverage over the conflict? And what are your thoughts on helping Syria with reconstruction, because I know there have been efforts on Capitol Hill and within the administration to use reconstruction aid as leverage.
Van Hollen: I do believe the United States should be involved in reconstruction efforts. However, as you know, the Trump administration eliminated funds from that goal. It’s not quite clear how they would structure the use of all those funds. But I do think the United States can play an important role there.
But that does presuppose in some ways getting to a political solution ultimately in Syria. I’ve believed for a long time that you’re not going to get to a military solution. Put it this way, the anti-Assad forces are not going to get a military solution. Although, as you say, Assad obviously has himself — with a lot of Russian help and some Iranian support — obviously made big military gains.
My view is that the right forum for this remains through international negotiations and the United States should be involved in that forum as the only viable way to chart a path forward.
Al-Monitor: Should the US follow the lead of the UAE and Bahrain, for instance, and resume direct diplomatic contacts with Assad or does it need to strictly stay in international fora?
Van Hollen: I don’t think we need to resume direct diplomatic engagement with Assad at this point. I think the best way first to participate is within international fora.
Let me just mention a couple of other things as well. This goes to the so-called "deal of the century." Look, I’ve been a skeptic of the [White House adviser Jared] Kushner plan for a long time, right? It seemed doomed from the start, given the fact that the approach was so one-sided and lop-sided in support of Netanyahu’s goals and quickly lost the engagement of the Palestinian Authority.
It’s not clear where they go from here. But it is a mistake to believe that somehow by providing economic assistance, people will somehow surrender their political rights and aspirations. That seems to have been the fundamental approach that Kushner’s taking. On the one hand, cut off all forms of humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people, including humanitarian assistance to hospitals and schools. They think that by imposing huge economic hardships on the Palestinian people that they will somehow surrender their political agenda for self-determination and a Palestinian state. It was based on a flawed premise from the beginning. Again, none of us know the details of this plan. We can always hope for a different outcome, but it seems to have been based on a faulty premise from the start.
Al-Monitor: And Secretary Pompeo himself from a leaked recording this weekend seemed to acknowledge that it might fail. What do you think the administration’s end game here is, knowing that after the Jerusalem embassy move and the aid cuts, the Palestinians already don’t have confidence in the plan? What do you think their ultimate goal here is? Is it actually the "deal of the century" or are they perhaps looking for other concessions from the Palestinians?
Van Hollen: It’s not clear to me what their goal here is because their original thinking was so flawed at the beginning. While President Trump is unhappy with the political situation in Israel and the need for reelection, in some ways it has given them a temporary out from having to unveil a plan that was likely to meet with a lot of opposition from people in the region.
Now we’ll have to see. My best guess is they do plan to go forward with the meeting in Bahrain. It’s not clear to me exactly how that’s going to play out right now. But clearly, the second half of the plan will not be unveiled until you have a new government in Israel. And then that creates all sorts of other complications as well.
We’ll have to see how all this unfolds. But the whole premise of their negotiating strategy was flawed from the start. My hope is that the Congress will make it clear that the only viable long-term approach that achieves the goal of a Jewish state that’s democratic and provides for the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people is a two-state solution.