Texas has gained some clout with the convening of the 118th Congress. With the very narrow Republican majority in the House of Representatives, there are now four Texas Republicans chairing committees: Kay Granger of Fort Worth leads Appropriations, Jodey Arrington of Lubbock heads the Budget Committee, and Roger Williams of Austin chairs the Small Business Committee. And Michael McCaul of Austin is the first Texan in history to chair the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
McCaul’s role is likely the most consequential, nationally and internationally. McCaul, who has expressed his support for extending aid to Ukraine, will have to be the linchpin holding together bipartisan support for America’s commitment to Ukraine as some other congressional Republicans seek to end the U.S.’s involvement. Meanwhile, he has also already initiated a committee investigation into Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan which ended America’s longest war but led to the almost immediate collapse of the government and the return to power of the Taliban. And he’s expected to hold hearings on the threat posed to the United States by China, which he has described as “the greatest national and economic security challenges of this generation.”
For McCaul, who turned 61 on Saturday, assuming the chairmanship of Foreign Affairs is the pinnacle of his career and the apex of the trajectory he has been on throughout his service in Congress. McCaul is now serving his tenth term in Congress representing the Tenth Congressional District, which extends from Austin to Greater Houston. He chaired the House Homeland Security Committee for three terms—the limit—and over the years, he has become a semi-regular guest on the Sunday talk shows. Two years ago, McCaul was one of only five Texas Republican members of Congress to vote to certify the election of Biden in Arizona and Pennsylvania as Donald Trump contested the results there.
He sat down for an interview with Texas Monthly in his new office last Wednesday—amid a packed schedule of meetings with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other diplomats— and then again on Friday to discuss Ukraine, Afghanistan, China, and other foreign-relations matters. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Texas Monthly: It took five long days, fifteen votes, and genuine uncertainty about the ultimate outcome, but the House elected Kevin McCarthy as Speaker and approved new rules reflecting McCarthy’s negotiations with the small band of members of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus who were withholding their votes. Now that it’s settled, how do you think it all worked out?
Michael McCaul: I think for the rank-and-file members, it was an empowering experience, and I think they feel like there’s a more open process. I think any time you make this place more open and transparent to the members, and they get more access and it’s not held by just leadership and people like me—chairmen—that’s a good thing. But, I’ll be honest, it was a very painful experience over a week to be sort of like a slave to hanging out on the floor, 24 hours every day. But at the end of the day, yeah, we did come together. We do have chairmen in place, and we’re about a week behind, but we’re where we are now and we’re going to move forward.
TM: Houston Congressman Dan Crenshaw likened McCarthy’s opponents in the Freedom Caucus to “terrorists” in a Fox interview, and seems to have cost himself a spot chairing the Homeland Security Committee. Would you have liked to have seen Crenshaw leading that committee?
MM: He talked himself out of it. That’s unfortunate. He said what I was thinking. But he said it, that these guys were terrorists holding us hostage, and it drew all sorts of ire.
TM: When McCarthy failed to secure the speakership on the first day of the session, keeping the House from swearing in members and governing, Matt Gaetz, the Florida representative who was McCarthy’s most implacable foe, tweeted: “Today the House didn’t organize / Biggest loser: Zelensky / Biggest winner: US Taxpayers.” Are you worried that that mindset, shared by some others on your party’s right, spells trouble in this Congress for maintaining American support for Ukraine in its war with Russia?
MM: I’m concerned about the members on both sides. [In October, thirty Democratic members of the one-hundred-or-so-member Congressional Progressive Caucus sent a letter to Biden, encouraging the president to consider seeking a negotiated settlement with Russia on Ukraine. Amid a firestorm of criticism, the letter was quickly retracted.] They’re not in the majority but there are factions on both sides that are very much against our efforts in Ukraine. And honestly, I think it’s going to be an educational process. I think what they want is oversight and accountability. And my committee will be providing that. I think they want to make sure that NATO is bearing the burden of this as well. I think, for the taxpayer, accountability is important, and we’re going to provide that.
TM: Do you think the Biden administration has been quick enough to provide Ukraine the arms it needs?
MM: We’ve been very slow in getting the weapons to them, [for fear of] being too “provocative.” First it was the Stingers [shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles], the Javelins [anti-tank missiles] and HIMARS [long-range artillery]. And finally, what they need right now with the Iranian drones in Crimea, they can’t hit those without what’s called ATACMS, and those are the longer-range artillery. And so, Secretary Blinken and I were talking about this, why aren’t we sending ATACMS? When we give them what they need, they win. He said, “You know, Chairman, you and I see this the same way.”
And I told the Secretary, “Look, Putin wants to drag this out, have a long protracted war and we can’t play into that, and if we don’t give them everything they need to win, to have a victory in the short term, you’re going to see the will of Congress start to evaporate and I worry about this.”
TM: Do you see this war as genuinely winnable for Ukraine, or is the objective more a stalemate on relatively good terms for Ukraine?
MM: I really think Ukraine could win this. Putin will run out of resources. The money we’ve invested in Ukraine has decimated the Russian military to the point where they’ve got to beg Iran for drones and North Korea for artillery shells. Without one American soldier in this fight—not in combat, not being killed. And that’s a very important point. Ukrainians have demonstrated that they can fight this war if we just give them what they need, and I don’t think it’s been provocative. They’ve never taken anything we’ve given them and shot it into Russia.
TM: You and your committee are launching an investigation into the administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Did you talk about that with the Secretary?
MM: We talked about the Afghanistan oversight. I told him that I want this to be very professional. This is not going to be political theater. There’s going to be a lot of investigations that are political theater; this one’s going to be serious, like a federal prosecutor would do it. Very methodical, very serious, professional, and it was officially launched yesterday with our first document request. I think it’s the oversight that the State Department and the Pentagon are most worried about because we haven’t gotten the full truth of what happened. And we owe it to the veterans, we owe it to the Gold Star mothers to explain what happened, and why it went so wrong.
TM: Do you believe that the disarray of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the disunity within NATO over it were precipitating factors in Putin moving ahead with his long-held desire to invade Ukraine?
MM: No question. There is a direct cause and effect between what happened in Afghanistan and Putin’s decision, “Okay, this is the time.” It was never a question of if, but when.
And now we’re looking at deterring Chairman Xi on Taiwan. And the better we do in Ukraine, the more of a deterrence we provide against Communist China and Chairman Xi invading Taiwan.
I grew up in the Cold War; Russia is not our friend. The fact that Putin is aligned with Chairman Xi and the Communist Party is not positive. So what I’m seeing is, when you look at Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, they’re really becoming closer. Our four nation adversaries are all lining up against the Free World and democracy. And that’s putting it in very simple terms. You saw Putin meet with Xi at the Olympics in Beijing and basically tell him, I’m going to invade Ukraine, and Xi says, Well, can you wait till after the Olympics. They have this unlimited partnership. [In March, the New York Times reported that credible intelligence indicated that senior Chinese officials told senior Russian officials not to invade Ukraine before the end of the Winter Olympics. While Putin did meet with Xi Jinping before the opening ceremonies, it was not known whether the conversation took place directly between the two men. However, Moscow and Beijing did issue a statement at the time asserting their partnership had “no limits.”] You can’t differentiate between the two. They’re joined. And I just think it’s very, very important right now that we keep that in focus, that our adversaries are very intent. They don’t think democracy is the best form of government and they’re, all four of them, very oppressive, and they deprive human rights, and now they’re getting very aggressive.
TM: In 2020, you chaired the China Task Force, which was meant to be bipartisan, though Democrats bailed on it just before it was supposed to get underway. You issued a lengthy report on the economic, technological, and security threats posed by China. On January 10, 219 Republicans and 146 Democrats voted to establish a successor Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, chaired by Wisconsin Republican Mike Gallagher. Are you encouraged by Democratic participation this time around?
MM: I do think China is one of those areas where you’re going to see some bipartisan movement. I think it plays into the Democrats’ hand because if they’re the party of pro-union labor, they want things made in America, not made in China. And you’re kind of seeing that coming together, like the CHIPS bill [In August, Biden signed legislation, written by McCaul, that provides the semiconductor industry $52 billion in subsidies to build more than a half-dozen big chip factories as well as research facilities in the United States rather than relying on such facilities in Taiwan, which dominates the world market but is ever vulnerable to an invasion by China].
TM: You’ve criticized Biden for a crisis on the border that you say he invited by ending Trump policies, because they were Trump policies, even though they were working. President Biden just made his first visit to the border and to Mexico. You tweeted that the trip “must be accompanied by concrete action to secure the border.” What does he need to do?
MM: Political asylum is the issue here. I worked with the previous administration on Migrant Protection Protocols [known colloquially as Remain in Mexico], which basically said, if you’re going to apply for political asylum, you have to remain in Mexico pending your claim. It was working. The problem was there were a lot of human rights people saying there are human rights abuses because it’s just south of the border. [Human rights groups considered MPP a disaster. In March, Human Rights First, a nonpartisan international human rights organization, reported that in the first two years of implementation there were more than 1,500 reported cases of kidnapping, murder, torture, rape and other violence committed against those returned to Mexico.]
And then on Day One, Biden rescinded Remain in Mexico that I personally worked on and that’s when the cartels saw the green light. They’re like, “Okay, welcome to America.” Now the operational control of the border is with the cartels. [There is no agreed-upon metric backing this common claim by Republicans, which is based broadly on record numbers of border crossings, the flood of fentanyl coming into the country, and the key role the cartels play in both human smuggling and drug trafficking.] And it’s because of that policy change. What I would tell Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is, I don’t care what you call it. You don’t have to say it’s Trump’s idea. Just go back to that policy or do something like that.
Once migrants hit the United States, and I’ve watched this as a federal prosecutor, it’s catch and release. We don’t have detention, so they are released with a notice to appear and they don’t show up. [In fiscal year 2021, 10 percent of migrants failed to show up for their hearings.] So what’s happened, about five million people have now gotten into this country that have no legal status. I don’t know what we’re going to do with them. They’re going to live in the shadows and they’re going to be exploited. I mean, the young women are exploited with sex trafficking. The males go to MS-13 and gangs. Not to mention the fentanyls that have come in from China through Mexico. They’ve killed 100,000 young people in this country now. More than we lost in Vietnam, for perspective.
TM: Congressman Pat Fallon from North Texas has filed articles of impeachment against Mayorkas, contending that, in ending MPP, Mayorkas had lost operational control of the border and then lied to the House Judiciary and Homeland Security committees by testifying that the border was secure. Fallon also charges that Mayorkas’s actions have damaged Border Patrol morale. How do you credit those claims and do they rise to the level of impeachable offenses?
MM: I’ve been careful to say that you don’t indict before you get your facts and your evidence. You do it methodically, but that may be more of a political exercise. But I think Mayorkas has not demonstrated the capability to do the job. The morale of the Border Patrol, I’ve never seen it this low, and I’ve been down there more times than probably any member of Congress, and they say there was a direct cause and effect between the rescission of MPP and what we’re seeing today. Mayorkas has no moral authority over them anymore. And they feel demoralized and it’s really sad because, how are you going to recruit Border Patrol agents? They’re saying, “I didn‘t sign up for this job to be a bus driver and a babysitter.”
TM: Texas Governor Abbott has been busing migrants who cross the border into Texas to New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Philadelphia, without coordinating with the mayors of those cities. Do you see that as a smart strategy or a stunt?
MM: I think what that demonstrated was just desperation and frustration with failure on the part of the federal government. It was interesting to me to see, all of a sudden, the city of New York is crying out for funding. I just think it gives them a taste of what we deal with in Texas every day, that way they can’t say that it’s not really a problem, let’s sweep it under the rug, there is no issue here.
TM: You mentioned reading a Texas Tribune article from earlier this week in which Texas state representative Tony Tinderholt, challenging Dade Phelan for speaker, likened himself to Congressman Chip Roy, among the leaders of the challenge to McCarthy. Tinderholt wanted to end the tradition in the Texas House of selecting some members of the minority party—in this case Democrats—to chair committees. Tinderholt ended up winning only three votes. “Please do not confuse this body with the one in Washington, D.C.,” Phelan told freshmen members after the vote. “After watching Congress attempt to function last week, I cannot imagine why some want Texas to be like D.C.”
MM: I had a lot of people say, “Hey, why can’t you do it like the Texas Legislature?” It’s not going to happen here. It’s just too divided. I think the acrimony has gone way up in this town, partisanship, and it’s gotten more polarized. But, you know, I read that article in the Texas Tribune and I thought, wow, we can probably take a lesson from Texas on this one.
I mean, I thought what happened here was, at the end of the day, we got an open, transparent rules package. Democracy is messy. But it was a spectacle. And it didn’t drive a lot of confidence. I don’t think it was particularly good. I mean, maybe the openness is good for my party, but I don’t think the spectacle was, and I think our adversaries as I said, on national TV, when they see that, they’re like, “Hey, see, democracy doesn’t work.”