Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, is in a unique position. He’s one of the few members of Congress who has Pres. Trump’s ear.
Risch says the two get together frequently, sometimes over lunch, to talk about foreign policy and debate differences when they occur. Skeptics will suggest that Risch, as chairman of that powerful committee, will be a mere lap dog for the president. I call it a wise use of power.
High-level political fights make news and retired Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee did a lot of that during his time chairing Foreign Relations. He made a big splash two years ago when he said that the president was on the brink of starting World War III. Those sort of one-liners don’t earn one-on-one lunches with this president.
I’ve read some analysis suggesting that Risch will provide more of a “quiet” leadership on the committee than Corker. To Idahoans who know him, “quiet” is not part of Risch’s DNA. He’s a savvy politician who happens to have a relatively close relationship with a president. It all could change if a Democrat wins the White House in 2020 but, for now, Risch is at the highest point of his career. He’d be foolish to blow it with loose statements to the media.
“I think a lot of people in this town are interested in how hard I am going to punch the president in the mouth. I’m not going to,” Risch said flatly. “I’m going to handle my disagreements with him one-on-one. I’m not going to do that on the front pages of newspapers.”
The 75-year-old Risch knows how the game is played in Washington. Members of the committee, and the chairman especially, are accustomed to being mobbed by news reporters seeking quick comments on issues.
“I am generally responsive, but not always. It depends on who is sticking the microphone in front of my face and how aggressive they are. I try to articulate as clearly as possible about the foreign policy of the United States on any particular issue,” Risch says.
“The problem here in Washington these days is … they want me to answer the question: ‘Do you hate Donald Trump as bad as I do, and do you agree that he is as bad as we say he is?’ I’m not going to answer that,” he says.
“I’ve been involved with this business all my life, and I have never seen a human being where there is more hate, animosity toward and disrespect toward than this president by the national media today. All my life, I’ve heard media people complaining that politicians never say what’s on their mind. Well, now they have a guy who tells them what’s on his mind morning, noon and night, and they don’t like that either.”
Risch gives Trump overall good grades on foreign policy. “This president is easy to understand when it comes to relationships with other countries. If he thinks America is getting the short end of it, he has a real problem with that and he will even tell our friends and allies that he thinks we’re getting the short end of the stick.”
But Risch’s overall approval doesn’t translate to unanimous approval. Those who work closely with Risch realize he’s no pushover.
“Jim Risch has never stood down from anything,” said Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., in a story published in USA Today. “This guy’s faced 2,000-pound animals on his ranch. There’s nothing that’s going to frighten this guy.”
The committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who has expressed extensive opposition to Trump’s policies, said in the same story that he thinks Risch will be fair to his fellow Dems.
“He tends to back the administration, but not blindly,” Murphy says. “I think we’re going to butt heads a bunch, but I think he has the ability to be a real honest broker.”
Some big names have chaired that committee over the years, including two that I’ve had admiration for — Richard Lugar of Indiana and the late Frank Church of Idaho.
“It is humbling,” Risch says. “I’m well aware of the shoes I have to fill.”
• • •
Chuck Malloy, a Silver Valley native and longtime Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.