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Democrats on ‘reassurance tour’ for European allies worried about Trump

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/17/2019 Paul Kane
German Chancellor Angela Merkel greets US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi during the 55th Munich Security Conference in southern Germany on February 16, 2019. © THOMAS KIENZLE/AFP/Getty Images German Chancellor Angela Merkel greets US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi during the 55th Munich Security Conference in southern Germany on February 16, 2019.

The “reassurance tour” has a new look in Germany this weekend, with newly empowered House Democrats serving as the points of intrigue at a forum that now serves as a gathering to try to understand President Trump’s thinking.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) arrived late Friday night at the Munich Security Conference, along with two Democratic committee chairmen and seven rank-and-file Democrats eager to calm the fears of traditional allies worried about the president’s isolationist tendencies.

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After six straight weeks focused on the domestic funding fight over border security, Pelosi’s new majority is making its first global tour.

Her delegation is one of four in Munich, more than 50 members of Congress all told, taking up the mantle that was once the providence of the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.). His close friends referred to his 2017 appearance at the gathering as his first act as “secretary of reassurance” in the Trump era.

McCain’s death last year stripped the conference of its most vocal American internationalist, but in the days ahead of their trip, Democrats made clear they would explain how the new House majority might be the new reassuring cavalry.

“I think that we can go a long way to satisfying our allies that support for the relationship is not only strong, but it is bipartisan, even if it is not always reflected in the Oval Office,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Schiff participated in a late Saturday discussion billed as the “U.S. Congress and its role in international security policy.”

McCain first started attending the Munich conference in the 1970s as a naval officer and later became the leader of the Senate delegation. That 2017 conference, his last appearance, included a panel questioning whether the West would survive.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks during an enrollment ceremony on Capitol Hill on Thursday night. © Zach Gibson/Bloomberg House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks during an enrollment ceremony on Capitol Hill on Thursday night.

“In recent years, this question would invite accusations of hyperbole and alarmism. Not this year,” McCain said, going on to excoriate Trump’s worldview.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), McCain’s close friend, officially dubbed his group of more than 20 lawmakers “CODEL McCain” in the senator’s honor — CODEL being shorthand for “congressional delegation.”

But this year’s conference comes at an evolving time for Republican voices on national security, making the presence of the House Democrats all the more significant.

McCain was replaced as chairman of the Armed Services Committee by Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.). And Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who retired in January, was replaced as Foreign Relations Committee chairman by Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho).

Inhofe, who is also leading a delegation in Munich, and Risch lack the same high profile as their predecessors, and both are considered more aligned with Trump.

Even Graham, a security hawk in line with McCain, has become a close ally of Trump in the past year. He has cheered on some actions — such as the national emergency declaration to try to build the U.S.-Mexico border wall — that traditionalist conservatives have rejected as a power grab.

It has left a sense of confusion in Europe. On Friday, as he began his remarks in Munich, Vice President Pence said: “I bring greetings” from Trump.

The audience just remained silent, not cheering, not jeering.

All that has made the Democratic voices, from the chairmen to the newcomers, a sought-after commodity for understanding what course the United States is charting.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), who served as an intelligence officer and held senior posts in the State Department and the Pentagon before winning a House seat last year, has already been held meetings on Capitol Hill with foreign ambassadors and ministers.

They all have, Slotkin said, the same type of questions: “Help us understand what’s happening, and how do we navigate in a world, particularly when we’re making foreign policy by tweet.”

Slotkin and Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), a freshman who served in a top State Department role in the Obama administration, traveled with “CODEL McCain” to Munich. Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), a veteran of the conference and close McCain ally, called them part of a bipartisan collection of younger lawmakers “with serious credibility in foreign policy and security and intelligence matters.”

Most conference attendees come from Western European countries with parliamentary systems of government and do not quite understand what the change in the House majority meant for U.S. diplomacy.

With Democrats in charge of the House, Coons said, they can force how U.S. dollars are spent around the world, a lesson he intends to drive home to his European counterparts over the weekend.

“They don’t have divided government where there’s a separation of powers anything like ours. So often it takes some conversion about what this really means,” he said.

Pelosi, of course, is not new to international conferences, but her presence will drive home how different things are. This is comfortable territory for her, international relations, as she spent years on the Intelligence Committee learning about global threats before she became the top Democrat 16 years ago.

“I take great pride that I came to the speaker’s office with strong national security credentials,” she said, “really the only speaker in recent history who has a national-security credential.”

Her advisers said her role would largely be behind the scenes in meetings with other leaders, reassuring them of the congressional commitment to traditional allies. After the event wraps in Munich, Pelosi’s 10-member delegation, which includes Schiff and Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, is traveling to NATO headquarters in Belgium.

“National security, that’s protect and defend, the oath we take,” Pelosi said in an interview Thursday. “And it’s very important for us to make our statement.”

The bigger statement might come from Slotkin and Republicans such as Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), a second-term lawmaker who served two tours in Iraq as a Marine intelligence officer.

Slotkin, 42, and Gallagher, 34, take a more international view of foreign policy.

“The real reason I’m going there is to make sure that we send a strong signal, a bipartisan signal from both sides of the aisle, from both houses of Congress, that our allies are important to us, that they fight alongside of us, they die alongside of us,” she said of Munich. “So that they know that the next generation that’s coming up also deeply believes in reassuring allies.”

paul.kane@washpost.com

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