State Politics

Former U.S. ambassador to Russia: Congress must hold public foreign policy hearings

Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul told Treasure Valley reporters on Monday that all elected representatives, including those working closely on U.S. foreign policy, have a responsibility to communicate with the public.

“I believe that in times of turmoil, like we are having now with respect to Syria, the Kurds, Ukraine and Russia, it is incumbent upon the U.S. Congress, both houses, to do what they can to educate the American people,” he said.

He said holding public hearings in the House and Senate can help achieve that.

“(The) more explanation, the more expert witnesses that come before the U.S. Senate, including witnesses from the Trump administration, the more information the American people will have about their foreign policy,” McFaul said.

McFaul traveled to Boise to give the keynote address at Boise State University’s 36th annual Frank Church Conference on Public Affairs. He served five years in the Obama administration, first as special assistant to the president and senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council from 2009 to 2012 and then as U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014.

Before his lecture, McFaul, a Montana native, sat down with local reporters to discuss a myriad of foreign-relations topics including a key figure in the current foreign relations turmoil: Idaho Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Risch.

Risch became chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in January. Risch, a U.S. senator since 2009, has stayed low-key in his congressional role and tends to rebuff the media.

Since Trump became president, Risch typically refuses to publicly comment on Trump’s or the White House’s actions, saying he is not going to engage the president through the media.

The Statesman asked McFaul about the public role of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee during foreign-relations crises and Risch’s style of leading that esteemed committee.

“I strongly believe that foreign policy should not be a partisan issue and is not a partisan issue,” McFaul said.

“With this committee in particular, over its many decades of service, there is a long-standing tradition of thinking we are all Americans when it comes to our national security. If our enemies ever attack us, they are not going to discriminate between Democrats or Republicans,” he said.

Risch’s strained relationship with the media bubbled up last week while he was attending a National Women’s Business Council forum in Nampa. During an interview, Boise State Public Radio reporter Heath Druzin asked Risch about the controversies surrounding Trump.

“I’m not going there. If you want to have an interview with me about the business center, please do so,” Risch told Druzin, before turning and walking away.

“Don’t do that again,” Risch said.

In a written follow-up statement to Boise State Public Radio on the Nampa encounter, Risch’s office stated this is an unusually partisan and volatile time in American politics, and the House’s impeachment inquiry has inflamed those ongoing tensions.

“It’s unproductive to weigh in on each and every development,” the statement said. “Rather than commenting on every new piece of information, the senator is monitoring these issues and will comment if and when impeachment proceedings move to the Senate and he has cast his official vote as a juror in those impeachment proceedings.”

Also bubbling up last week was Risch’s refusal, so far, to hold Foreign Relations Committee hearings on the Trump/Ukraine scandal.

On Oct. 9, all 10 Democratic members of the committee sent a letter to Risch requesting he “promptly convene hearings” on the “serious allegations” that have arisen regarding Trump’s interactions with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The Foreign Relations Committee has an obligation to examine the serious questions raised by recent events, the members wrote.

“As the Committee charged with jurisdiction over U.S. foreign policy, it is incumbent on us to understand fully all the facts,” they wrote, “including the circumstances surrounding the delay in U.S. security assistance to Ukraine, the early departure of the U.S. ambassador to Kyiv, the Department of State’s role in these matters, as well as the implications these events may have on U.S-Ukraine relations, and U.S foreign policy more broadly.”

When asked how Risch would respond to the letter, his office on Oct. 10 told the Statesman, “He’s currently reviewing it and will respond to their inquiry directly.”

To date, no hearings have been scheduled. Additionally, Risch has not issued a public statement since Oct. 9 on Turkey’s incursion into Syria against the Kurds.

McFaul said all elected representatives have a responsibility to communicate with their constituents. He added that the government should be beholden to the U.S. taxpayer.

“This is U.S. taxpayer money that got held from the Ukrainians,” he said. “That wasn’t Trump’s money. That was our money. So we should demand some accountability about how our president is using our resources.”

McFaul said he cannot judge Risch’s chairmanship style because he doesn’t know “what quiet conversations that (style) allows Sen. Risch to have with President Trump. ... I don’t know what the trade-off is.”

“I can respect that if there is some evidence to suggest that this quiet consultation is achieving national security outcomes that are in the interest of the American people and in the interests of the citizens of your state,” McFaul said. “It is not enough to say you are trying. You have to show that you are achieving results from those kind of quiet interventions.”

McFaul also is a Stanford University professor, a Washington Post columnist and an MSNBC news analyst. He is the author of the recently published book, “From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia.”

Related stories from Idaho Statesman

Idaho Statesman investigative reporter Cynthia Sewell was named Idaho Press Club reporter of the year in 2017 and 2008. A University of Oregon graduate, she joined the Statesman in 2005. Her family has lived in Idaho since the mid-1800s.