Midterm Elections Produce Renewed Challenges on National-Security Committees for Trump

November 7, 2018 Updated: November 8, 2018

The midterm elections have produced a changed leadership picture, and renewed challenges for President Donald Trump, on the national-security committees within Congress.

With the switch to Democratic control in the House, a number of senior Democrats, known in congressional parlance as “ranking members,” will ascend to the chairmanships of their respective committees and subcommittees with the swearing-in of the new Congress in January.

On the Senate side, Republicans maintain control of the chamber overall, with a retirement of a sitting committee chairman causing a change in its leadership ranks.

Likely the most consequential change will come on the House Intelligence Committee, where strident presidential critic Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) is in line to assume the committee’s chairmanship, relegating current chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) to ranking member.

Schiff has aggressively accused the Trump presidential campaign of collusion with Russia. Nunes has been a staunch advocate on behalf of the Trump administration, steadfastly defending it while leading Republican inquiries into counter-charges of Democratic infiltration and improper Obama administration surveillance of the Trump campaign.

The House Armed Services Committee will be led by Adam Smith (D-Wash.), while Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) will move into the ranking member seat. On the Senate side, James Inhofe (R-Okla.) will maintain the gavel, with Jack Reed (D-R.I.) remaining as ranking member.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee will be led by Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). With Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) losing his reelection bid, committee Republicans will have to select a ranking member likely from either senior committee members Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) or Christopher Smith (R-N.J.).

On the Senate side, James Risch (R-Idaho) stands to assume the chairmanship of that chamber’s Foreign Relations Committee with the retirement of current Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), while newly re-elected Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) will remain as ranking member.

On the House Appropriations subcommittee for defense, Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.) is in line to assume the subcommittee chair, with Tom Cole (R-Okla.) moving to ranking member. In the Senate, the subcommittee remains unchanged, with Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) serving as its ranking member and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) wielding the gavel.

Longtime national-security committee members and staff frequently refer to “traditional bipartisanship” in their committees’ work. However, since the election of Trump, the investigations of potential Russian interference and counter-charges from Republicans of Obama administration meddling in the Trump campaign have strained that cooperation, particularly on the House Intelligence Committee. With Democrats soon to be in charge of the House, Trump administration priorities such as defense spending increases would appear particularly endangered.

On the other hand, the president may find that Engel, as House Foreign Affairs chairman, may have a more receptive ear than most other congressional Democrats, as he was a vocal critic of the Iran nuclear deal forged during the Obama administration.

On the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Risch and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), currently the two most senior committee Republicans, have been strong critics of China’s foreign policy, trade practices, and human-rights record, while questioning some Trump administration policies toward it (most recently, granting a waiver to China on sanctions against Iran that would permit it to continue importing Iranian oil).

Committee assignments and leadership are typically determined in January after the swearing-in of the new Congress.