Michael T. McCaul represents Texas’s Tenth Congressional District, which stretches from Austin to Houston. At the end of this year, he is term-limited out of the chairmanship of the House Committee on Homeland Security. Since the beginning of the year, the West Lake Hills Republican has campaigned for the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. His announced rival for the post is Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina. Even if he defeats GOP competition, McCaul’s capture of the post depends on the ability of Republicans to retain control of the House, a feat that is far from certain. How does McCaul see the state of our nation’s foreign relations? Texas Monthly interviewed him to find out.
Texas Monthly: The U.S. faces three areas of international tension: Europe and Russia, China and the Western Hemisphere, particularly Mexico and Latin America. How do you sum up challenges we face?
Michael T. McCaul: Those three areas are extremely complicated. To deal with each of those areas we must consistently engage with regional partners. The United States is the most powerful, influential country on Earth—the “Shining City on a Hill,” as President Reagan once said. However, to continue to be that “shining city” we must find like-minded countries who are willing to help balance the international order away from demagoguing regimes that want to suppress the liberal order we created.
Think of NATO. Over nearly the past 75 years, NATO has served as a beacon of hope, and served as a counterweight to the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation. NATO has been on our side during our operations fighting terrorism in the Middle East. While broad, formal military alliances may not be necessary in every case, we must continue to work with our friends around the world to promote our values of freedom and democracy.
TM: Mexico elected a new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who said “nobody will threaten us” with a border wall or a militarized border. How will President Trump’s continued push for a border wall and immigrant detentions affect the relations between Texas and Mexico?
MTM: I think relations between Mexico and Texas (and the United States) are strong. Despite the rhetoric on both sides during recent elections, I think President Trump and President-elect Lopez Obrador want to continue the strong partnership between the U.S. and Mexico. I personally have a strong partnership with our Mexican counterparts as chairman of the United States-Mexico Interparliamentary Group. On the issue of the border, as Homeland Security chairman, I prioritized securing our border, and stopping contraband and criminals from coming and going between the U.S. and Mexico. Mexico can be a partner in helping us secure the border. Our partnership can help address issues of violence, migration, and criminal activity in Mexico through four “pillars” of cooperation: promotion of rule of law, support of justice sector reform, border security, and crime prevention. Given this collaboration and the recent agreement on a renegotiated trade deal between the U.S. and Mexico, I see the relationship between our two countries continue to be strong.
TM: Can we help end the violence in Central America that is prompting thousands of refugees to seek asylum in the U.S.?
MTM: The United States has a large role to play in ending violence in Central America. Central America is a haven for transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), which perpetuate violence and trafficking, which then leads to migration and asylum-seekers. While I ultimately think that each sovereign state has a responsibility to provide for the welfare of their own people, the United States can help build capacity and provide technical expertise to help start addressing this violence. That is why I am a supporter of CARSI, the Central America Regional Security Initiative. This is a program that supplements existing strategies of partnering nations in Central America, while fostering regional cooperation. Specifically, CARSI helps local law enforcement disrupt and combat TCOs and other organized crime, builds the capacity of local judiciary to implement rule of law, and advances local community policing tactics, while trying to advance economic conditions that discourages the next generation from engaging in criminal activity in the first place.
TM: Defense Secretary James Mattis once said that North Korea represented the greatest threat to U.S. national security. Do you believe that is still true, or has the threat vanished? If not, what should be the United States’ next step to control the threat?
MTM: I absolutely agree—North Korea has nuclear weapons that can be aimed at us and our allies. They have demonstrated the capacity to fire ICBMs [inter-continental ballistic missiles] long-enough distances to hit the continental U.S., and reports have stated that they can produce a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside such missiles. It appears that negotiations with North Korea on the issue of denuclearization is at an impasse. I think we must continue to put maximum pressure on North Korea and the regime, and go after actors such as China and Russia who help North Korea evade U.S. and U.N. sanctions.
TM: Your colleague Representative Devin Nunes, R-California, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, has taken a decidedly critical view of U.S. law enforcement agencies—including the FBI, Justice Department and the intelligence community—for its conduct of the Russian investigation. You are a former Justice Department lawyer. Do you share Nunes’s skepticism? How do you think law enforcement and special counsel Robert Mueller have done in conducting the probe?
MTM: I worked at the Department of Justice in the Public Integrity section, which is the top prosecutorial division that oversees federal efforts to combat corruption through the prosecution of elected and appointed public officials. I’ve stated publicly many times that Russia is employing a Soviet-derived disinformation strategy against the United States and our allies. Russia’s goal is to sow discord within our country and undermine trust in our public institutions. As the intelligence community has publicly stated, Russia attempted to interfere in our electoral and political processes in our 2016 election in order to undermine its credibility. However, Russian influence operations are not confined to our elections—Russia and other adversaries are attempting to undermine our nation’s values and institutions on a persistent basis. Russia is not our friend, and there should be consequences for their interference. That is why Congress voted to sanction Russia for targeting our election. We must let this investigation run its course, allow the investigators to do their work, and then once we have all the evidence draw further conclusions. I still have full faith in our criminal justice system.
TM: The president seems ambivalent about NATO. How important do you believe NATO is to the preservation of democracy? Do you believe other NATO nations take advantage of the U.S. on the issue of spending for defense?
MTM: I have long been a supporter of the transatlantic relationship because I understand the importance of NATO in securing the global order we have built following the end of World War II. In fact, I attended the Munich Security Conference with Senator [John] McCain and shared his strong support for our NATO alliance. However, I think the president was right and has been successful in getting our partners to pledge to pay more. This has been a complaint of previous administrations that the United States has been footing too much of the bill and it is time that our NATO partners contribute more to our shared security.
TM: President Trump was asked if he regarded Vladimir Putin as a friend or foe. He said Putin was a “competitor.” What would you call Putin?
MTM: Vladimir Putin is a foe; he is not our friend. He is a thug, a former KGB officer, and has no regard for the international order. Think about what Russia has been up to in recent years: they have propped up a murderous dictator in Syria; illegally annexed Crimea; invaded sovereign Georgian territory; and barraged Estonian, European, and U.S. critical infrastructure with cyber operations. We need to make sure that we stand up to Putin and his foreign policy adventurism that seeks to destabilize our foreign policy and the security of our allies.
TM: The White House scrapped the Iran nuclear deal and has re-imposed sanctions. In your comments, you seem to believe that that these two actions will cause the Iranian people to rise up against their leaders. Is this what you believe?
MTM: It’s no secret I was against it from the beginning because it didn’t have certain elements in it. Particularly without conducting inspections anytime, anywhere, because if you can’t properly inspect it’s hard to know what’s happening. The deal also essentially freed up $150 billion that went towards terror organizations. They have been able to expand into the “Shia Crescent,” as Netanyahu called it, in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Also, the ballistic missile capability, which Iran has ramped up since the agreement was signed, overloaded the Iron Dome defense system in Israel. I fear that this deal only would have delayed, and not prevented, Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. With respect to empowering the people of Iran, we know that the Iranian regime continues to perpetuate gross human rights abuses against its own people. They continue to engage in corrupt practices and to illegally detain and imprison our citizens without just cause or reason. That is why I passed legislation to sanction Iranian individuals and groups who engage in such human rights abuses. By putting pressure on the Iranian regime’s officials and weakening their ability to fund terror, you put more and more internal pressure on Iran from their people within. By working against, not with, such a corrupt regime, we demonstrate to the people of Iran that we support them in their quest for freedom.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.