What exactly is a member of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees doing in Syria? According to Politico, none of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s House colleagues on either side of the aisle seem to know. Nor do they know who’s funding the trip, except to declare that Gabbard isn’t using taxpayer funds for her travel:
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s office won’t say who is paying for the Hawaii Democrat’s controversial trip to Syria and Lebanon this week.
Gabbard spokeswoman Emily Latimer said the trip wasn’t funded using taxpayer dollars and was approved by the House Ethics Committee but wouldn’t provide further information when pressed by POLITICO. The lawmaker is currently on the trip, though it’s not clear exactly when she’ll be returning. …
Congressional leaders were blindsided by Gabbard’s trip to war-ravaged Syria with staffers saying she didn’t give the customary advanced warning to Democratic or Republican leadership offices.
Latimer wouldn’t say whether Gabbard met with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Lebanese officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the trip.
Foreign Policy magazine first reported Gabbard’s travel, describing it as a “fact finding mission” — a description that makes the issue of its funding all the more curious:
Congressional travel to the devastated country is exceedingly rare, especially as fighting continues in direct violation of a recent cease-fire agreement brokered by Turkey and Russia. This week, Syrian government forces backed by Lebanese militants attempted to recapture a rebel-controlled area near Damascus that includes a pumping station that supplies most of the city’s water.
Gabbard, an Iraq war veteran who drew speculation about an appointment in the Trump administration after she met privately with the president-elect in November, has frequently bucked her party and Washington’s foreign-policy establishment in debates over the Syrian conflict.
For years, she has opposed a U.S. policy of regime change and says the country will become more unstable and dangerous if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is ousted.
In describing the purpose of the trip, Gabbard spokeswoman Emily Latimer said she “felt it was important to meet with a number of individuals and groups, including religious leaders, humanitarian workers, refugees, and government and community leaders.”
What makes this all the more unusual is Gabbard’s status within the House. She’s in the minority party, and she’s only on her third term in office. She doesn’t hold the Ranking Member position on either of the two committees; Adam Smith is the ranking Democrat on Armed Services, and Eliot Engel holds that position on Foreign Affairs. In a normal fact-finding effort, House members would typically work with their committee leadership, especially when it comes to a powderkeg like Syria — or at least give them a heads-up. Why not do that much if she’s only going on a fact-finding mission?
Instead, not only does it appear that Gabbard gave them no warning, she also apparently provided no information on who she’s meeting. Our policy toward Syria may well change on Friday when Donald Trump takes office, but for now, Barack Obama’s policy is in place. This looks like a potential violation of the Logan Act, especially if she’s meeting with Assad or his agents:
Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.
No one ever gets prosecuted for violating the Logan Act, especially not members of Congress (and former presidents, for that matter). Politically, though, this might snuggle up to the theoretical line. Put that together with undisclosed funding and Gabbard’s relatively non-influential position in the House and on the relevant committees, and the whole exercise looks … pretty darned strange. Perhaps when she returns to the US, a rational explanation will be offered, but it’s tough to propose one that fits the circumstances at the moment.