Three years ago, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham were fighting to stay in Donald Trump’s orbit as he pulled away in the Republican presidential primary.
Now, the three senators with distinct foreign policy views — Paul is libertarian while Rubio and Graham are noted hawks who prioritize different regions of the world — are able to claim varying pieces of influence and credit for Trump’s foreign policy approach during his first two years in office.
Rubio notably persuaded Trump to roll back some of Barack Obama’s Cuba changes to fulfill a campaign promise and has been a constant voice urging action against Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, an approach that paid off this week with multilateral recognition of an opposition leader as Venezuela’s rightful leader. Graham met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at Trump’s encouragement last week as the administration and Ankara discuss how the U.S. negotiates a pullout in Syria. And Paul, one of only a few Republicans to support leaving Syria, was one of several senators who met Trump at the White House last week to discuss how the administration can wind down military activity in Syria and Afghanistan.
A scattershot foreign policy approach from the president has allowed the three former rivals for the GOP presidential nomination to gain influence through White House dinners with Venezuelan opposition leaders and golf outings with the president. And Trump doesn’t appear to hold grudges with the trio, who have each publicly disagreed with the president by voting against his Cabinet nominees in the case of Paul, pushing for tougher Russia sanctions in the case of Rubio or, like Graham, calling Trump’s initial Syria announcement a “stain on the honor of the United States.”
“There are certain issues like trade, alliances, general sympathy for dictators, that are fairly consistent for the president over time, and where he seems to have much more fully fleshed-out preferences,” said Rebecca Lissner, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College who has studied and written extensively about Trump’s foreign policy.
“There are a lot of other areas,” she explained, “where his instincts are much less honed and he cares much less about, and on those issues where he’s less knowledgeable, less committed, spoken less on the record, those are the issues where he is much more persuadable, and those are the areas where, at the right time, those who do get in his ear have an opportunity to assert even some considerable influence.”
It “speaks for itself,” Lissner added, if Trump really was being guided by such disparate figures as Rubio, Graham and Paul.
“If you believe there is any coherence to this administration’s foreign policy under President Trump’s leadership, it is very hard to see how he could be under the influence of Sen. Graham and Sen. Paul at the same time.”
Nudging the president
The cycle of cheering on the president in one breath and taking him to task days later, often through Trump’s preferred medium of Twitter, creates a constant push-and-pull between three of the most prominent members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Eric Farnsworth, a former State Department official and now vice president of the Council of the Americas in Washington, said the high-profile positions taken by Rubio, Graham and Paul open up space for the administration to satisfy them, even if they don’t go as far as Paul would prefer in drawing down troop levels around the world or implement Rubio’s preferred ban on Venezuelan oil imports.
“It does seem to me that there has been a lot of political space claimed by the legislature, by Senator Rubio and others,” Farnsworth said. “The Trump administration writ large has been focused on China, North Korea, Russia. Where in the context of priorities do you get to a Venezuela? It clearly opens up space for the most passionate actors to take a higher profile role.”
The latest schism between the trio is on Turkey, a NATO ally led by a man who has cracked down on dissent and free speech after a 2016 coup attempt. While Graham was preparing to meet with Erdogan, Rubio was meeting with NBA player Enes Kanter, a critic of Erdogan who cannot travel abroad amid death threats and an international arrest warrant from Turkey.
Graham said he went to Turkey at Trump’s urging.
“The president wanted me to go talk to Turkey, so I did,” he told McClatchy. “I told him I would be willing to go, and he said, ‘go, sure.’”
After their meeting, Erdogan invited Graham to see Fazil Say, a famous Turkish pianist. Graham sat smiling in the front row.
The Syria question
It’s still not clear what Trump will ultimately decide when it comes to Syria—if he’ll facilitate a slow withdrawal as the U.S. troops and allies work to defeat ISIS, which Graham wants, or forge ahead with his original plan for a rapid retreat, as pushed by Paul.
But it was a sign of Trump’s confidence in Graham and interest in having him involved that he sent the senator to Turkey as a representative of the United States. It was essentially a diplomatic mission: National Security Adviser John Bolton had previously angered Erdogan by saying Turkey would have to bear the brunt of protecting Kurdish forces that would be vulnerable to attacks from ISIS once the U.S. left Syria. Bolton is also a noted proponent of further action in Latin America, calling Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua the “Troika of Tyranny” in a Miami speech shortly before the November elections.
“The president’s approach to foreign policy has largely been to not publicly antagonize leaders he’s trying to reach accommodation or agreement with,” Rubio said. “I’ve long said that human rights and respect for democracy should be at the forefront of everything we do and I have a different style about that.”
Rubio has repeatedly said that Venezuela is “different” when asked about Trump’s conciliatory approach to Russia and Saudi Arabia. He notes that Venezuela’s geographic location and the ongoing humanitarian crisis there are reasons enough for the U.S. to care, in addition to the thousands of refugees spilling into Colombia and Brazil that he says presents a potential national security threat.
But when Trump displays flashes of being a non-interventionist, particularly with his Syria decision late last year, Paul becomes his biggest cheerleader in the Senate.
“Most of the voices around here like to stay everywhere for all time, and they believe that it doesn’t work unless you go somewhere and stay forever,” Paul said in a Senate floor speech. “It’s not so much me influencing him as that I tend to agree with his policies.”
Paul also backs ending the Cuba embargo, a longstanding point of contention between the Kentucky senator and Rubio, a Cuban-American from Miami. Paul once turned the tables on a common criticism from detractors, accusing Rubio of being an “isolationist” for supporting the embargo back when both were mulling a 2016 presidential bid.
Limits to influence
Though each of the three has a respective lane on foreign policy decisions, Lissner cautioned against giving Graham, Paul and Rubio too much credit.
“They may have solicited small concessions on some issues, but I would think they have influences on the margins, really that they align with the president on certain discrete matters rather than meaningfully altering his world view,” Lissner said.
Take Saudi Arabia, for example. Paul is a longtime critic of U.S. arms sales to the Saudis, who have led a bombing campaign in Yemen and faced fierce criticism for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Graham and Rubio hardened their positions in recent months, and both said the U.S. should consider suspending arms sales to the Saudis.
“I can never do business with Saudi Arabia again until we get this behind us,” Graham said in October 2018.
But Trump released a statement two months after Khashoggi’s murder titled “Standing with Saudi Arabia.” The exclamation-point-filled statement said it would be foolish to cancel arms contracts because the Saudi money would go to China and Russia instead, even though he couldn’t determine if Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman sanctioned Khashoggi’s murder.
Though Graham, Rubio and Paul all opposed the crown prince, they were unable to influence the president to rebuke the U.S.’s second-largest source of imported oil.
“I understand there are members of Congress who, for political or other reasons, would like to go in a different direction — and they are free to do so. I will consider whatever ideas are presented to me, but only if they are consistent with the absolute security and safety of America,“ Trump said in his statement. “Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”