In the sea of Trump administration officials, GOP congressional heavyweights and Republican megadonors gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the moving of the U.S. Embassy, former Sen. Joseph Lieberman has been one lonely Democrat.
Not a single sitting member of his party was invited to take part in the festivities – even those who lined up with President Donald Trump on the issue – reflecting the combative D.C. “tribalism” that Lieberman opposes.
Still, the onetime vice presidential nominee and member of the bipartisan coalition of senators who helped give birth to the original Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 praises the current White House for what he calls a “bold move” that is long overdue. (Lieberman insists he is still a Democrat, despite being identified as an “Independent Democrat” in his final years in the Senate.)
“I am grateful to President Trump for making this decision,” he tells Haaretz while preparing to take part in Monday’s dedication ceremony for the new U.S. Embassy. Always far more hawkish than other members of his party on foreign affairs, Lieberman is, more controversially, a rare Democrat who is also praising Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, sharing the president’s view that it was a “bad agreement.”
Even as Lieberman lauds Trump’s actions on the embassy and Iran, he acknowledges an unavoidable irony: If the presidential candidate he himself voted for, Hillary Clinton, had won the election in 2016, it is almost certain neither of these things would be happening.
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Lieberman says he never accepted the argument that the Jerusalem Embassy Act interfered with the president’s authority over foreign affairs, which was the justification for the clause under which the president could choose to “suspend” the actual moving of the embassy out of “national security interests.”
When Congress passed the act in the mid-1990s, President Bill Clinton had “demanded” the inclusion of that clause, Lieberman recalls. “He said he favored moving the embassy, but it just wasn’t the time.”
That insistence opened the door for every subsequent U.S. president – until Trump – to follow in Clinton’s footsteps, declaring support for an embassy move but never executing it.
Their refusal, Lieberman says, was built on a false premise. “I never bought the explanation that there would be an eruption on Arab streets if the embassy actually moved,” he explains. “President Trump has had the confidence, as I always had, that this would not start some kind of uprising across the Arab world. And look what has happened now: While it’s true the Palestinian leadership isn’t happy about it, and it’s not supported across the Arab world, it is accepted.”
Supporting the embassy move is one thing. Supporting Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposing sanctions on Iran pushes Lieberman even farther away from his party’s official position.
Lieberman chairs a group called United Against Nuclear Iran, an advocacy group founded in 2008 by Dennis Ross and the late Richard Holbrooke, whose goal, according to its website, is to “ensure the economic and diplomatic isolation of the Iranian regime in order to compel Iran to abandon its illegal nuclear weapons program, support for terrorism and human rights violations.”
The group campaigned “very strongly” against the original agreement signed in 2015, Lieberman says, since “there was no indication this agreement would change Iranian behavior and human rights behavior.”
As with the embassy, Lieberman argues that the “muted” international reaction to the U.S. move to reimpose sanctions has proven that warnings of damage to American credibility if Trump left the agreement were exaggerated.
Lieberman believes that after Trump’s decision, “We can go to a much better place to negotiate a much better agreement. We are in a stronger position: the region is safer and the U.S. is safer,” he says.
“This is a moment where Iran is under severe internal pressure economically, and the reimposition of U.S. sanctions will have a huge effect that will put more economic pressure on Iran,” the former senator continues, adding, “The regime in Iran is in trouble. I’m not predicting its fall, but they have a lot of troubles at home.”
He says the United States should act quickly and firmly “slapping on more sanctions,” and if Europe gets on board with these toughened sanctions, a “better deal” is in fact possible.
Hawkish, but no Dr. Strangelove
Unlike his fellow Democrats, Lieberman has no qualms about Trump’s new foreign policy team – led by new National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whom many liberals have characterized as a dangerous change from their seemingly more moderate predecessors.
“The vision of Bolton as some kind of Dr. Strangelove isn’t accurate,” declares Lieberman. “He’s hawkish but very smart, and he is very thoughtful and measured. I know Pompeo less well, but have heard the same about him. You get a feeling now that Trump has put together a team around him that is finally working together and not at odds with each other. So, overall, it will add a coherence to American foreign policy,” he says.
Lieberman is so Trump-friendly a Democrat that, for a moment, it looked as if the former senator was on the verge of a second career. After the firing of FBI Director James Comey last May, Lieberman was Trump’s surprise choice to replace him.
Lieberman confirms that, though the news came as a shock and he never actively sought the role, he was ready to return to D.C. from Connecticut. “I would have done it out of a sense of duty – God bless my wife, she was ready to go back to Washington,” says Lieberman.
His return to public service was scuttled, however, when Trump hired Lieberman’s law partner, Marc Kasowitz, as his outside lawyer representing him in the investigation of ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.
By supporting many of Trump’s decisions in this age of extreme partisanship, Lieberman is continuing to stretch his historically contentious relationship with his own party. This hit a crisis point in 2008 when he crossed party lines and endorsed his longtime friend and partner in bipartisanship, John McCain, in his ultimately unsuccessful presidential race against Barack Obama.
Lieberman does have some harsh words for the Trump White House, though, when asked about recent reports about Trump aide Kelly Sadler dismissing Sen. McCain’s opinion during an internal White House meeting because “he’s dying anyway.” (McCain is fighting cancer at his ranch in Arizona.)
Lieberman calls the alleged remark “stupid, foolish and cruel. It was a private setting, but that doesn’t matter. These days, everything you say is going to eventually become public. But publicity shouldn’t be the reason you don’t say something like that – you just don’t say it.”
He says he is in regular contact with McCain and, “thank God, he’s very much alive.”
The former senator is more circumspect when asked about the steady drip of revelations about the Justice Ministry investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and the corrosive effect Trump’s behavior is seemingly having on political norms and institutions.
“I’ve decided when it comes to President Trump to focus on his policies,” Lieberman notes, indicating he would withhold any criticism until the completion of the Mueller report into possible collusion with Russia.
“The politics that I believe in focus on issues, not the tribe – not opposing something simply because it is advocated by the other political party. I’ve been opposed to President Trump’s policies when it comes to issues like the [Muslim] travel ban and ObamaCare, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t agree with him when it comes to the embassy. Or if I do, that I shouldn’t say so,” he concludes.