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Meet the new Senate Foreign Relations boss, not the same as the old boss

Jim Risch says he speaks regularly with the president, but does not air laundry

Sen.  Jim Risch, R-Idaho, left, is the new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, working with ranking member Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen.  Jim Risch, R-Idaho, left, is the new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, working with ranking member Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Contrary to past practice, when the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has a disagreement with President Donald Trump, the public might not hear about it.

But Sen. Jim Risch says that the president himself certainly does — often from the chairman himself.

“Look, I have differences with the administration and have had since President Trump was elected, but every time that I’ve had those differences, I’ve talked to, generally, the president,” the Idaho Republican said. “One-on-one sometimes, sometimes with a group.”

Risch said in an interview with Roll Call that when he has called the White House looking to speak with Trump, the president has typically either answered the phone or called back as soon as possible.

“He has treated me with nothing but respect and listened carefully to what I had to say, and sometimes I was able to move him. Sometimes a little bit, sometimes more than a little bit,” Risch said. “Sometimes not at all.”

When it comes to dealing with the executive branch and media relations, the new chairman is about as stylistically different as possible from his predecessor in the role, former Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who would regularly discuss disagreements with the Trump administration with the press corps.

Risch did recently get agitated with reporters on Capitol Hill when he believed they were misrepresenting the State Department’s compliance with reporting requirements on the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi under the Magnitsky Act.

The Idaho senator said the Trump administration did file the required report, despite colleagues, including ranking member Robert Menendez of New Jersey, saying otherwise. Risch said Saudi Arabia was among the topics discussed on a lengthy call Saturday with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“He’s fully committed to keeping us totally apprised of the facts,” Risch said. “The media has been portraying it like there’s some kind of a breach between us and them, and there is not.”

Risch is a former governor and lieutenant governor of Idaho who was a longtime fixture in the state Senate before that, where he held titles including majority leader and president pro tempore.

“I ran our state Senate for almost, well for over two decades, doing what Mitch McConnell does,” Risch said. “Differences of opinion on political issues are nothing new to me.”

Risch convened his first full committee hearing shortly after meeting with Roll Call in his office Wednesday morning. Former Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and former national security adviser Stephen Hadley were called upon to testify broadly on America’s role in the world.

“The backstory is that the 21st century is developing as a competition amongst great powers much like the 19th, 18th and 17th centuries were, except that those of course were military, mostly military and imperialistic adventures,” Risch said. “This will be, I think, an economic competition as much as anything.”

Much of Risch’s focus as chairman will likely be on China, and he cited the example of the alleged theft of trade secrets from Boise-based Micron Technology by a Chinese state-owned company, which was formally alleged in an indictment last year.

“Anybody who isn’t paying attention to what’s going on in China is making a huge mistake,” Risch said in the interview. “With that kind of population and the ability to mold that population into a consumer type of population, they are going to pass us very soon as the world’s largest economy.”

Over the last decade, Risch has served on both the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, which he has viewed as an advantage.

When asked if he ever encountered situations where the intelligence community said something behind closed doors on a national security topic that didn’t match what was said publicly at the Foreign Relations panel, he answered succinctly: “Yes, regularly.”

Richard Burr does a great job running [the Intelligence] Committee. He focuses on things that need to be focused on, while at the same time taking on some big projects,” Risch said, including the investigation of Russian meddling in the U.S. elections.

But the Idaho senator recalled an example from early in his Senate career where his knowledge base from the Intelligence panel proved a double-edged sword.

“When we were arguing the New START Treaty … John Kerry was chairman of the committee and I was the lead protagonist, I guess, against the New START Treaty,” Risch said of the 2010 arms reduction pact with Russia. “One of the things we knew then, which was classified then but is no longer classified, [was] that the Russians were cheating on the [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty].”

“I was a young freshman and they were banging me over the head saying sit in the corner and keep your mouth shut,” Risch said. “But, that is something that should have been on the table when we were arguing about the New START.”

The lone freshman on the panel in 2019, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, is not likely to keep his mouth shut, and the outsize national profiles extend well beyond the former GOP presidential nominee. 

“Not quite half, but almost half of this committee has either run for president or is currently running for president,” Risch said.

New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker is already running, and Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley just might run. A handful of panel Republicans have made White House bids in the past, including Romney.

“You’ll hear a lot of magnificent speeches in that committee as we go forward over the next months,” Risch said.

Also watch: Pence condemns Maduro, announces new sanctions on Venezuelan regime

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