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An Interview with Margaret Taylor, Chief Democratic Counsel for the Senate Foreign Relationships Committee

Margaret Taylor is the Chief Democratic Counsel for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In this capacity, she serves as an advisor to Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), the Committee’s Ranking Member; the Committee Chairman, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), has recently been involved in a high-profile feud with President Trump. Taylor, who was previously served as a legal advisor to the State Department, spoke with The Politic’s Milan Vivanco ’21 while at Yale as a panelist for the Law School’s Congress and Foreign Policy Conference.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Taylor was responsible for “advising department officials on foreign assistance appropriations and implementation issues, including the department’s anti-crime, counternarcotics, and peacekeeping programs worldwide, as well as assistance programs in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia.”

The Politic: Good morning Ms. Taylor. To start off with, I would like to ask you, what is the greatest diplomatic challenge you see facing the United States today?

Margaret Taylor: I think at this particular moment it’s probably North Korea. There is a lot of tension on that issue on both sides and that is the one that gives me most pause today. There are obviously other simmering issues that are happening but North Korea is the biggest challenge.

So, in terms of North Korea, what is the best approach to de-escalate the conflict or to resolve the issue peacefully?

In my view, military action would be inappropriate in the absence of an imminent threat. I don’t think there are any good outcomes from military action. I think that my boss and I agree with this as well, [we] see a diplomatic surge as the way to go. But I don’t think we necessarily see—Senator Cardin said this as well—a full team yet at the State Department nominated and confirmed to deal with all of these issues.

What is Senator Cardin’s main concern with how the Trump White House is handling North Korea?

I can’t exactly speak for him, but he has written a number of op-eds and expressed in letters to the Administration as well that the diplomatic surge is necessary now, and I guess that’s all I can say.

Fair enough. Next, I want to talk a little bit more about expansive U.S. foreign policy. President Trump has introduced this new era of America First. How has that policy agenda influenced the proceedings of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee?

I think what it means for the Foreign Relations Committee is that we need to—and we always have exercised significant oversight over past administrations’ foreign relations policy—keep an eye on to make sure whatever form the president’s agenda takes is consistent with the Committee’s view of what is in the United States’ national security and long-term foreign policy interests.

For example, Senator Cardin is making sure that issues like human rights, democracy promotion, anti-corruption remain part of U.S. foreign policy, part of the diplomatic agenda. That is something that has been really important to him and to us. He’s constantly out there asking questions with the witnesses coming before us. I think it means increased oversight because it’s not clear all the time what that America First agenda actually translates to in reality.

Some officials have actually mentioned that such an approach by President Trump as it has manifested itself so far is rather “reckless.” In fact, Senator Corker went so far as to categorize it as “setting the path on a course for World War III”. What were the reactions of the Committee and what impact did it have on the proceedings?

So as a staffer, I’m actually not allowed to talk about any conversations I have with the senators. That’s the only way we can give them appropriate advice. However, I think almost all the members have a view and seek to use the Committee as an institution to shed light on what’s happening and provide the American people with the truth of what’s happening. That’s part of the oversight role. We hold public hearings so that the people can know what is going on. Part of our role is to shed light on the American people.

I want to talk a little more specifically about a few recent events that have come up. President Trump has started looking into how to decertify the Iran deal. What complications might arise from him doing so?

I worked on the oversight of the original Iran nuclear deal, so I can walk you, technically, [through] what is happening. Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, if the president does not make the certification, which is what is expected, there would be a sixty day window where either the leaders of the House or Senate could introduce qualifying legislation which would enjoy expedited procedures and a 51-vote threshold rather than the normal 60 in the Senate. That would snap back the sanctions currently being waived by the president to implement the deal. We are still in wait-and-see mode as to what unfolds next.

Note: Since this interview was conducted, President Trump did decertify the Iran deal. Congress has not yet re-introduced sanctions.

Great. Transitioning to ISIS, what would be next in the U.S. approach to Iraq after ISIS has been defeated? How can we ensure that a stable government is set up legitimately this time?

I don’t have the answer to that question, but I would say that many of the members of the Committee have expressed concern as to whether we have the resources and commitment necessary to achieve whatever the plan is afterward. I’m not aware that we, at least at the staff level, have any sense of what that step is. Senator Cardin and others have been asking in hearings to find out what the plan is once military actions are concluded—how that space is filled in a way that promotes peace.

So going off of that, how has the recent Kurdish [independence] referendum affected the U.S. approach to peace in Iraq?

There are differing views in the Congress and each of the parties on whether that is appropriate or not. It doesn’t strictly follow party lines. I think it complicates the situation but I don’t have a better answer for you than that. I’m sorry!

Senator Cardin recently released a statement saying: “The US should not take actions that could undermine our bilateral relations with Cuba and the U.S.” To what effect does the recent expulsion of Cuban diplomats from the U.S. heighten tensions between the two countries?

I’m not sure I have an answer for that either, I apologize. What I would say is that Senator Cardin has expressed that support for our diplomats is of paramount importance. We have to do what we need to in order to protect our diplomats. What impact it has should be taken into consideration for sure but what has to be addressed is the safety of those [U.S. diplomats in the American embassy in Cuba].

The Administration has made some decisions but I think there’s no question that the harm that was suffered [by the U.S. embassy employees in Cuba] is real. We send our diplomats into dangerous situations, we should, we need them there, but we need to protect them once they are there.

Finally, in recent years, a political, economic and social crisis has emerged in Venezuela. There is fierce opposition to the country’s leader, Nicolas Maduro. What steps should be taken to deal with Maduro’s authoritarian government in light of recent developments there? [Elections that took place in Venezuela on October 15 were condemned as unfree by the U.S. State Department].

Senator Cardin introduced a bill on this issue that has yet to be taken up but it really does embody what his vision is.

Now just a couple of quick questions. Where do you get most of your news?

I check mostly on my phone. I read The New York Times, The Washington Post. I often read Fox News because it’s amazing to see what the headlines are; they can be pretty different. Part of being in the House or the Senate is that you have to understand what your constituents are seeing in order to understand them. We also have someone in our office who collates and sends out articles during the day so we can get real-time updates on what is happening.

Great. What place would you like to visit most?

At the moment, the answer to that question is New Zealand. I’ve heard wonderful things. It has so much natural beauty, and I would really love to go there. I was kind of jealous of the recently confirmed Ambassador to New Zealand because it seems like a wonderful posting!

If you weren’t in your current posting what would you be doing?

I could be working at a law firm or a university, but right now I do think that the job I’m doing is really important. Being in the minority in the Senate, you are not driving the agenda necessarily–you don’t have that power–but it is an important role and important voice to have, so I’m actually really happy and satisfied with the job I currently have.

What keeps you up at night?

I think this tracks with Senator Cardin’s priorities. Given that we are in the midst of very high profile foreign policy issues going on–North Korea, Iran, the Middle East–I hope something that doesn’t get lost are some of the lower profile issues that the United States promotes human rights, democracy, and combatting corruption around the world. Ultimately, it’s the aspirations of the people around the world and the ability of their governments to achieve that which is going to lead us to peace. I do worry that some of those issues are getting lost.

Absolutely critical. I’d like to also ask, what your advice is for college students?

My advice would be to find something that you genuinely believe in. Whether that is a type of work—for me it was government, I was in law school on 9/11 and that was really impactful in my career. It’s been a good motivator in pushing me to go to work every day and do what I can to make our country safer. I’d say find the thing that makes you tick and go after it. Just do it and don’t worry too much about making mistakes. You’re going to make mistakes and that’s a valuable part of moving through a career.

Do you have a Twitter?

I do not. I am completely off of social media. I don’t do it. I think it’s partly my personality and the nature of my job. I’m an advisor to a Senator, and I wouldn’t want to be out there expressing all sorts of views or putting information out there in a way that could make me less effective at my job.

Finally, rounding it off, what living person do you admire most?

I think I have to go with my mom. She grew up in a very different time from me, when social norms were very different for women. She didn’t have the same opportunities that I did at all and yet she had three daughters and created an environment that encouraged us to achieve anything we wanted to do even though she never had that kind of encouragement. It takes a lot to grow up a certain way and have different aspirations for your children.

Very true. Thanks so much, Ms. Taylor.

Thank you.