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Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina describes the U.S. military withdrawal from Syria as currently in a “pause situation.” Graham says President Trump is determined to defeat the Islamic State group first. (Dec. 31)
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WASHINGTON – Sen. James Risch, the new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, says he has disagreed with President Donald Trump on “many, many occasions.”

But in an exclusive interview with USA TODAY, Risch defended the president’s controversial approach to North Korea and Syria. He downplayed reports that Trump wants to withdraw from NATO.

And he flatly refused to answer questions about the FBI’s reported probe into whether Trump was secretly working for Russia, or whether Congress should subpoena the notes of Trump’s interpreter in his meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Next issue,” the Idaho Republican responded brusquely when asked if he would support seeking the interpreter’s notes. That question has gained steam in the wake of a Washington Post report that Trump tried to hide the details of his conversations with Putin, even from other officials in his administration.

The 75-year-old lawmaker said he was “stunned” to learn of the FBI probe into whether Trump was working on Russia’s behalf, and he quickly cut off a question about it.

“I’m not going to do this. That’s nonsense, all nonsense,” said the former trial lawyer and current cattle rancher, who has also served as Idaho’s governor and state legislative leader.

Risch takes the helm of the committee at a turbulent moment in U.S. foreign policy, with lawmakers in both parties questioning the Trump administration’s approach to Saudi Arabia, Russia, Syria and North Korea, among other global hot spots.

Here’s the new chairman’s take on four key foreign policy questions – and whether he will act as a check on Trump:

China

Risch said his biggest foreign policy concern was China’s expanding geopolitical influence. That will be a major focus of the first hearings he plans to convene, the Idaho senator said, along with a broader look at the re-emergence of a competition between global powers.

“Particularly in the latter part of the 20th century, we were the 800-pound gorilla on the planet,” Risch said. “We’re still the 800-pound gorilla, but there’s some (other) gorillas that are growing up pretty quickly.”

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The Chinese government has made billions of dollars in loans to countries in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere – using what some have called “debt-trap diplomacy” to increase its leverage across the globe and challenge American influence.

“They’re everywhere,” Risch said. “They want to establish their influence, and particularly economic influence, in every possible place that they can.”

Syria

Risch said he had no immediate plans for a hearing on Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, which has created confusion and concern among American allies across the Middle East. Lawmakers in both parties have criticized the decision, saying it will allow ISIS to regain strength and will leave the U.S.-allied Syrian Kurds vulnerable to attack from Turkey.

Risch expressed confidence that U.S. would be able to continue its campaign against ISIS from other locations in the region. And he said he’s satisfied with Trump’s efforts to protect the Syrian Kurds from harm.

NATO

Risch expressed staunch support for NATO, calling it “the most successful military alliance in the history of the world.”

Trump has criticized the 70-year-old military alliance as “obsolete” and threatened to withdraw the U.S. from NATO. The New York Times reported on Monday that he has repeatedly revisited that possibility even as his top advisers have warned against such a move.

Risch said he agrees with Trump’s complaint that other NATO countries do not spend enough on defense. But, he said, “that doesn’t justify getting out of NATO or making major changes to NATO.”

Still, Risch would not commit to supporting bipartisan legislation to prevent the president from withdrawing from NATO without congressional approval.

“We’re not at that point where we need to talk about that yet,” Risch said.

North Korea

Risch, who also sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, offered a full-throated endorsement of Trump’s efforts to arrange a second summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. The two men held an historic first meeting last year in Singapore, when they signed a vaguely worded pledge to work toward full denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

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Critics say Kim has done little to make good on that agreement and that Trump should hold out for more concrete action before he agrees to another high-level meeting. Kim has not, for example, given American negotiators an inventory of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal – what many experts see as a vital first step.

Trump and his allies note that North Korea hasn’t launched any missiles in the last year and has moved to dismantle some nuclear and missile engine test sites.

“Every single American, including the national media, should be delighted that we’re in a lot better place than where we were previously,” Risch said.

Trump wants to have a second meeting “so that he can better secure the defense of the United States,” Risch said. “That’s –– really, really good idea.”

Trump

Risch seemed taken aback when asked if he would stand up to Trump when he believes the president is wrong.

“Why would you perceive that I would stand up to Trump? What kind of question is that?” he asked.

Risch’s processor as chairman, Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, had many public feuds with the president over foreign policy issues – blasting Trump for his warm words for Russian President Vladimir Putin and rebuking the administration for its handling of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, among other steps.

Risch said he’ll be looking for ways to support the president, not fight with him.

“It’s in every American’s interest to see that the president is very successful when it comes to foreign policy. I want to help him do that,” he said.

He said he’s disagreed with Trump on a number of issues but never publicly. “When I did it was face-to-face, person-to-person,” he said. Asked what those disagreements were about, he said: “I’m not going there.” 

More: Low-key Sen. James Risch contrasts combative Corker on Foreign Relations Committee

 

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