The country sits and watches as 15 members of the Senate Intelligence Committee seek answers to a political scandal that threatens to unravel the very fabric of our democracy. The stakes of this Russia investigation cannot be understated. Questions of collusion, corruption and cover up are on the minds of Americans across the country.
At the same time, reports of horse-trading, backroom deals and unscrupulous influence surround the Trump Administration’s U.S.-Cuba policy review.
One United States senator has found himself in the middle of both.
Marco Rubio has been both a key player in the administration’s Cuba review and, as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, tasked with the unenviable responsibility of overseeing the Senate’s bipartisan Russia investigation.
Thursday morning, Senator Rubio, a long-time Russia hawk, took to questioning former FBI Director James Comey in the must-watch Senate Russia investigation televised hearing. Two days after having dinner with the president, Rubio’s questioning appeared to be more of a defense attorney style cross examination of Comey than his normal hawkish approach to Russia.
The merits of the Cuba review, an inter-agency assessment of Obama-era Cuba policies, will determine whether or not President Trump will maintain policies that expanded U.S. travel to and trade with our island neighbor, allegedly.
However, reports that President Trump is set to roll back Cuba policy have shed light on the fact that this review process, which is ostensibly ongoing, is increasingly looking like a charade. Almost every agency across the federal government has expressed support for continued engagement. But, arguments of economic prosperity and national security have seemingly been overruled by hardline Cuban-American members of Congress, who are determined to enact stricter policies toward Cuba.
One of those members, Senator Rubio, has reportedly been a lynch pin in this review process that will determine U.S. policy on an issue that has been called an “emotional blind spot” for the Cuban-American senator.
When it comes to U.S.-Cuba policy, it appears as though Rubio is calling the shots. But, the question remains, what is motivating Trump to cede control to Marco Rubio, who he famously referred to as “Little Marco”?
Surely, it isn’t about winning Florida given that most Cuban-Americans in Florida support lifting the embargo and that Hillary Clinton won Miami-Dade County – the historic center of opposition to engaging Cuba – by 29 points.
Surely, it isn’t human rights as the White House has repeatedly claimed as a justification for a tougher stance on Cuba. This suggestion is inconsistent at best and disingenuous at worst. That would directly contradict Trump’s public praise and efforts to strengthen relations with countries that have far worse human rights records, including Saudi Arabia, China and Egypt. Not to mention the leading human rights organizations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam all publicly support engagement with Cuba.
And surely, it isn’t to follow through on Trump’s campaign promise to roll back federal regulations, given that a “reversal” of Obama Cuba policies would actually add new job-killing government regulations on U.S. businesses and adversely affect the U.S. economy.
Any logical person would come to the conclusion that adding regulations on U.S. companies would be a direct contradiction of President Trump’s “America First” agenda. But, yet, Trump is apparently set to do just that. If this is true, and the will of one senator outweighs that of Trump’s entire administration and the majority of the American public, it begs the question how will Trump benefit from a roll back?
For one senator to have the level of influence that Rubio has had on this review process all the while investigating Russian collusion in the Trump campaign at the very least has an appearance of a conflict of interest.
This is as if a juror were deciding the fate of a defendant, while simultaneously lobbying the defendant to make decisions on unrelated business interests. And, in this instance, the juror had a private dinner with the defendant two nights ago.
Real or perceived, a conflict of interest of this magnitude not only undermines the integrity of the U.S.-Cuba policy review but the integrity of this critical investigation. The American public deserves to know for certain that backroom deals aren’t deciding our foreign policy.
Undoubtedly, Senator Rubio is in a “very difficult position” as he stated on Wednesday. In order to preserve the credibility of this review, should Senator Rubio recuse himself from the process of influencing the President on an issue of such personal and political concern during the duration of the Russia investigation?
Collin Laverty is a leading expert on Cuba and U.S.-Cuba policy relations and the President of Cuba Educational Travel, which organizes educational exchange programs and people-to-people travel for U.S. citizens and residents to Cuba. Laverty previously served as the director of the Center for Democracy in the America’s Cuba program, taking dozens of Members of Congress and Congressional staff on fact-finding trips to Cuba. Follow him on Twitter @collinlaverty11