Tuesday’s midterms delivered mixed results, with the Democrats taking the House for the first time in eight years, and Republicans increasing their seats in Senate.
But while neither party can declare all-out victory over the returns, the outcome could trigger some important changes in U.S. foreign policy.
President Donald Trump will still be able to, well, be Trump, in many ways: He will still have the power to unilaterally quit treaties, for example. And during a press conference on Wednesday that turned rather combative at times, the president said any move by the House to investigate him would result in “a war-like posture,” promising retribution from the Republican-controlled Senate.
Still, House Democrats would be able to force the president’s hand on rejoining the Iran nuclear deal he walked away from in May, and are likely to prioritize good relations with Israel over repairing ties with Iran.
If they have the will and support among their own ranks (and they still have to work with a very Republican Senate on passing bills), House Democrats could push for tougher tactics with Russia starting in January. That’s when two Kremlin critics, Reps. Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Adam Smith (D-WA) are in line to take over the House Foreign Affairs Committee and House Armed Services Committee, respectively.
Had Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) not decided to retire, Engel would have have had a powerful ally in the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Corker pushed through (yet to be enforced) sanctions on Russia in the face of White House reluctance to crackdown on Moscow over election meddling. He is likely to be replaced as chairman by Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID), who started out disliking Trump but changed his tune. Risch does not tend to challenge President Trump’s policy lines, and, in fact, often defends them.
Still, a Democratic-led House could push for more sanctions on Russia, and pressure the State Department to enact the sanctions signed into law in 2017.
The Trump administration missed the deadline for the sanctions on Tuesday, although it seems the State Department figured it needed to start “consultations” by the deadline, not actually enact anything.
The House could also use its subpoena power to get information on the president’s closed-door meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the summer, shedding light on the nature of President Trump’s relationship with Putin.
Congress has largely been in the dark about that meeting as well as the one President Trump held a month earlier with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, which was also held in similarly secretive fashion (that is to say: no advisors, no transcripts, zero transparency).
Here, the House could use its oversight capabilities, subpoenaing officials to give public testimony on what they know of the meetings.
As of now, the negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missiles have apparently stalled, with planned talks postponed without any explanation, NBC reported on Wednesday.
The House could flex its muscles to force change in the Trump administration’s relationship with Saudi Arabia — which has been a chief concern since the kingdom executed dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside its own consulate in Turkey.
House Democrats could vote to block the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, which has been engaged in a brutal campaign of airstrikes in support of Yemen’s government in a civil war there, which has thus far claimed over 10,000 lives, roughly half of them civilian.
Saudi has redoubled its attacks on Yemen since the United States called for a ceasefire, with humanitarian workers there saying they fear at least 100 civilians have been killed in the last week alone.
A Democrat-led House could also wage a battle against a nuclear deal the Trump administration is hoping to sign with Saudi Arabia, probably by the end of the year.
The House could also use subpoenas to dig into son-in-law and advisor to the president Jared Kushner’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, which has come into sharp focus in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder.