SOMERVILLE, N.J. — It was a Friday in March at 5:00 p.m. on the dot. Rep. Tom Malinowski and I had just sat down in his largely empty temporary congressional office here when special counsel Robert Mueller informed Attorney General William Barr that his 22-month investigation was complete, prompting a dizzying whirlwind of speculation about what comes next.
Malinowski, a Democrat, took his iPhone out of his pocket to quickly glance at the update but appeared largely disinterested — and disappointed. He put his phone on his desk and immediately changed the subject to something that had happened a mere three hours ago and was clearly at the top of his mind.
President Donald Trump had just reversed — via tweet, no less — his own Treasury Department’s decision to impose new sanctions on North Korea, with the White House press secretary explaining that Trump personally “likes” Kim Jong Un and therefore believes the harsh new financial punishments would be unnecessary.
But suddenly, the world’s attention shifted to the news that Mueller had wrapped up his investigation, and to the attorney general’s sparse, four-page summary of Mueller’s findings. Trump’s stunning reversal of North Korea sanctions would soon be forgotten, a fact that clearly irked Malinowski, who was enraged by the president’s decision.
“We’re inured to this. The president ‘likes’ the leader of an adversary state and therefore will not take action against him?” Malinowski said soberly in his characteristic deep, monotone voice that he almost never raises. “You don’t wait for your Treasury Department to sanction people and then the next day theatrically overturn them. You don’t do that.”
Malinowski, 53, is just one of nearly 100 members of the freshman class in the House — but he’s quickly becoming one of the Democrats’ most influential voices on foreign policy, educating his fellow members about key issues and aggressively pushing the Trump administration to prioritize global human rights issues and re-orient its often chaotic foreign policy.
“He’s brought to the committee a wealth of experience and a list of good ideas a mile long,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, one of Malinowski’s committee assignments. “He’s going to play a big role in our work in the years ahead.”
It’s all the more surprising because Malinowski wasn’t supposed to be here. Born in Poland and having emigrated to the U.S. at age 6, he spent 12 years as a top official at Human Rights Watch before joining Barack Obama’s State Department as head of the bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor — hardly the usual launching pads for a congressional career. In the 2018 midterms, he narrowly defeated a GOP incumbent in a Republican-leaning central-north New Jersey district, winning in part by flipping longtime Republicans in a year that saw a “blue wave” react fervently to the president’s first 21 months in office.
Building a public profile around foreign policy and national security issues is a daunting task in any era. And in a freshman class that includes firebrands like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, it often seems impossible to jerk the media spotlight over to sobering topics like the incipient famine in Yemen. Yet that’s exactly what Malinowski is aiming to do — while assiduously tending to the needs of his constituents: Officially, his top issue is pushing for the construction of the proposed Gateway Tunnel linking New Jersey with Manhattan.
“You know my job in Congress: Dig a tunnel and save the world — in that order,” he often says, ranking his spot on the Transportation Committee above membership on the Foreign Affairs panel. But it’s clear that human rights — not bridges and tunnels — remains his true passion.
Calling out and punishing human-rights abusers is one of the few actions that routinely brings Republicans and Democrats together on Capitol Hill — and Malinowski has a history of finding allies on the other side of the aisle. Over his years in Washington, he has cultivated relationships with Republicans like the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona, with whom he found common ground despite McCain’s stinging criticisms of Obama’s policies. They worked together during the George W. Bush administration to oppose the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation tactics, and McCain vouched for Malinowski at his Senate confirmation hearing in September 2013. Malinowski highlighted McCain’s praise in a campaign advertisement shortly after the senator’s death.
The two men often butted heads over Obama’s foreign policy, even as they often agreed in private. Malinowski revealed to POLITICO that he worked behind the scenes to fight some of Obama’s most criticized foreign-policy decisions — most notably, the initial intervention into Yemen’s civil war by providing aid to Saudi Arabia despite the kingdom’s poor record on human rights, and Obama’s refusal to set up a no-fly zone over Syria despite his “red line” on chemical-weapons attacks.
McCain was, for decades, the go-to authority for congressional Republicans on foreign policy and national security matters — and a vocal critic of autocratic regimes. Democrats had their own hawkish eminence grise until his death in 2008: Rep. Tom Lantos of California, who, like Malinowski, grew up in the Eastern bloc and learned to despise Soviet-style governance. But few figures in either party command that kind of authority today — which presents an opportunity for someone with the gravitas and media-savvy to step into the vacuum.
In 2019, Republicans maintain a national-security edge over Democrats, though recent polls show that the gap is narrowing. Many on Capitol Hill believe the gap can be reversed entirely if Democrats can effectively take advantage of Trump’s disjointed and often haphazard approach to world affairs.
It seems unlikely a freshman House member who’s never held elected office before could become a real irritant to the White House on foreign policy — especially in an age when America is turning inward, consumed by debates over health care, inequality, race and immigration. And in this “Romney Republican” congressional district, there’s no guarantee that Malinowski will be able to stick around longer than just one term. In fact, he already has a viable Republican challenger for 2020: the son of former New Jersey governor Tom Kean.
But Malinowski is betting that Americans still care deeply about the world beyond their borders, and he projects more worry about the substance of Trump’s foreign policy — his praise for dictators like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, his erratic Twitter statements on the use of nuclear weapons, his disdain for NATO — than he does about the politics.
“I think Americans still care. I think the State Department still cares. I think our armed forces still care,” he said.
“Every institution cares apart from the White House,” Malinowski added. “And unfortunately, the president speaks for the United States, so the world gets a warped impression of what the United States is all about right now because of one man. And that is consequential. But it can be reversed.”
For a freshman lawmaker who doesn’t dance on social media or tangle with the president over Israel, Malinowski’s ability to get attention is impressive. During a recent House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, he cornered Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the disconnect between the president calling out Venezuela’s socialist government while praising communist North Korea for its economic potential. The clip went viral on Twitter, causing many to ask: Who’s Tom Malinowski?
“If we’re going to be so forceful in denouncing socialism, why is the administration so high on communism?” Malinowski asked.
“Yeah, I mean, the very statement there is outrageous,” Pompeo responded, going on to defend the Trump administration’s strict sanctions against Pyongyang.
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“Why is ‘liking’ Kim Jong Un a sufficient reason to cancel or not to pursue sanctions against companies helping his nuclear program?” Malinowski retorted, referring to Trump’s reversal of Treasury-approved sanctions — the same decision that vexed Malinowski so much that he shrugged off the completion of the Mueller investigation.
He later brought up Trump’s glowing comments about Kim and asked Pompeo if Kim is responsible for the country’s labor camps and the assassinations of his uncle and brother, among other human-rights abuses.
“He’s the leader of the country,” Pompeo said each time.
“What’s to ‘like’ about Kim Jong Un?” Malinowski pressed.
“Sir, don’t make this a political football. It’s inappropriate,” an angry Pompeo responded.
It hasn’t always been this easy for Malinowski to grab the spotlight, though. Only a few weeks into his tenure, he did something almost unheard of on Capitol Hill in the era of social media virality: He walked up to a reporter after a press conference and asked if the confused scribe had any more questions for him.
“Nothing bores me more than people complaining about press coverage and not getting attention,” he later explained. “It’s our job to do things that are worthy of attention. And I think we’re doing a pretty good job. And I’m satisfied that I’m getting my message out.”
Before I arrived at his office, Malinowski was preparing his remarks for a vigil later that night for the victims of the mosque attack in New Zealand, where a white supremacist gunned down 50 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch. As I walked into his office, he asked a staffer to find the names of the victims who were living in New Zealand as refugees.
Speaking in a gymnasium at Mount Olive High School later that night, Malinowski said those refugees came from Syria, Somalia, and Afghanistan because they thought they would be safe in New Zealand. Without mentioning Trump by name, Malinowski harangued politicians who employ language about an “invasion” of migrants — as Trump did the day after the shooting, in addition to during the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections. At the vigil he implored attendees to “call out anyone in this country who uses language that is in any way similar to the language that those terrorists use.” The crowd did something that rarely happens at vigils: They stood up and applauded for nearly a minute before Malinowski could continue speaking.
“The shooter in New Zealand said exactly the same thing: Immigrants are invading Western countries,” Malinowski told me in his office. “And when the president responds the next day after the massacre in New Zealand by repeating that immigrants are invading America, that does not make people in my district feel safer any more than they would have felt safe if Barack Obama had echoed the propaganda of ISIS after an ISIS attack. So this isn’t politics. This is serious business. This is about protecting our country and protecting our people. It’s about defending our law enforcement institutions, defending our intelligence community.”
He recently introduced a resolution condemning white-supremacist rhetoric and those who amplify or repeat it. The legislation doesn’t mention Trump specifically, but it’s an implicit dig at the president with a twist: The resolution almost entirely quotes conservative darling Ronald Reagan from his final speech as president. It was an address Malinowski described as a “love letter” to immigration. It’s something close to his heart as an immigrant himself.
“The idea would be to ask Republicans to choose between Reagan and Trump,” Malinowski said. “This is becoming a national security issue and I want us to stop playing defense on immigration and start playing offense and point out that this demonization of immigrants and this spreading of outright paranoid lies about invasions of rapists and killers is radicalizing a portion of the American population in ways that are dangerous to all of us.”
“It’s scary,” he said at another point in our interview. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before in our country. And it’s a problem we’re going to be dealing with, I fear after Trump is gone.”
As alarmed as Malinowski can sound about Trump, he finds himself in a curious political position: In his historically Republican district, he could not have won by bashing the president all the time. On domestic issues, he positions himself as a moderate Democrat, rejecting progressive goals like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal as irresponsible and unrealistic.
At the same time, he viewed 2018 as a turning point for the two political parties. In Malinowski’s view, Republicans had all but abandoned the core principles that Americans had instinctively associated with the party of Lincoln.
“I felt like I was running as the candidate of the party of patriotism in America, the party of law enforcement in America, the party that wants to defend our country against foreign adversaries, the party of family values — since our presidents don’t pay off porn stars while they’re in the White House,” he said. “These are all principles that used to be associated with the Republican Party. And I proudly embrace them and believe that my party stands for them today.”
The Democratic congressional campaign arm advised Malinowski that to win his race against Republican incumbent Leonard Lance, the safest thing to do was to run on the party’s health care message. Don’t take the bait, the Democratic strategists in Washington warned, on Trump’s late-stage rhetoric about a migrant caravan coming to “invade” the country.
The New Jersey Democrat ignored that counsel.
One of his final ads of the campaign cycle, titled “Rejecting Fear,” featured Malinowski explicitly pushing back on Trump’s closing message: “They want you scared — scared of your neighbors, scared of me.” Malinowski thinks the message resonated in part because of the ethnic diversity in New Jersey’s 7th congressional district and the fact that 20 percent of its residents were born outside the U.S.
“Democrats can talk about these issues so long as we frame them in the right way,” Malinowski insisted to me. “I’m not an alarmist. I speak calmly and precisely about what’s happening in our country and to our community.”
Malinowski’s presence on Capitol Hill — particularly his perch on the Foreign Affairs Committee — irks some of his Republican colleagues.
“Anything to do with the horrid foreign policy of President Obama, it’s not healthy for our country so we can’t support that,” said Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), a longtime member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, naming the Iran nuclear deal and other cornerstones of Obama’s foreign policy. “The bad policies that [Obama] did have really damaged this country.”
But Malinowski has also used his State Department experience to his advantage on the panel.
During a committee debate about a War Powers resolution to withdraw U.S. support for the Saudi coalition in Yemen, Republicans were arguing that the effort was ill-conceived because the U.S. is not engaged in “hostilities” in Yemen. Malinowski fired back, explaining that he was involved in the discussions when the Obama administration decided to get involved in Yemen in the first place. The Obama administration considered the U.S. to be formally engaged in hostilities in Yemen, Malinowski countered.
“If a foreign power was bombing Washington, D.C., and a second foreign power was refueling the first power’s aircraft over the Chesapeake Bay on their way to drop ordinance on the Capitol building, we’d consider both countries to be at war with us, obviously,” Malinowski told me. “And if we’re refueling Saudi aircraft, if we’re servicing them on the tarmac, helping them get back into the air, we’re part of this conflict. And therefore need to make responsible decisions.”
Most — if not all — first-time members of Congress have never been in a classified briefing. Malinowski’s fellow freshman lawmakers often lean on his executive-branch experience when drawing their own conclusions. Every Democrat ended up voting in favor of the Yemen War Powers resolution, a remarkable and rare show of Democratic unity on a fraught foreign-policy issue.
“Witnesses can’t get things by him,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), a fellow Foreign Affairs Committee member. “He’s able to provide a lot of knowledge for the members of the committee, but he also uses it on the floor.”
Despite the GOP criticisms, Malinowski is far from an Obama sycophant. During his tenure as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, he was often a dissenting voice among the Obama foreign policy brass. Republicans like McCain took notice.
“We fought together in the trenches to do something that we both passionately believed in,” Malinowski said of his work with McCain on banning the use of torture. “He won my lifelong loyalty and admiration in that fight.”
But McCain, an ardent critic of Obama’s foreign policy, often used Malinowski as a punching bag to vent about what he viewed as a disjointed and dangerous series of foreign-policy decisions — including the last time they saw each other, in McCain’s Senate office in 2017.
“He reamed me out about my support for banning arms sales to Saudi Arabia. He said, ‘Are you one of those people who think we should stop selling [precision-guided munitions] to Saudi Arabia?’ And he gave me a look that could kill,” Malinowski said with a laugh. “I tried to shift the subject as quickly as I could.”
“I loved him. And he liked a good fight and always — he jumped into the toughest fights and was never afraid of taking a strong position on a difficult issue. And I try to be the same way. And sometimes that meant we were on opposing sides. And it did not and could not have affected our friendship.”
Malinowski actually agreed with one of McCain’s central critiques of Obama’s foreign policy: that the U.S. should have done more to stem the bloodshed in Syria after Obama’s so-called “red line.” But Malinowski, who at the time was a senior official on the president’s national security team, couldn’t project his views publicly; instead, he tried to change Obama’s course from the inside.
“When I was working with the president, for the president, I made my opinions known in a way that one responsibly does as a member of the administration,” he said.
On Syria, though, Malinowski completely struck out. Obama was reluctant to do anything that would drag the U.S. into a prolonged conflict in the region, even as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was deploying chemical weapons on his own people. Malinowski wanted to set up a no-fly zone well before Russia staged a military intervention in 2015; the idea would have been to prevent Syrian fighter jets from flying over cities like Aleppo and threaten to shoot down aircraft that crossed into opposition-held areas. But once the Russians got involved, all bets were off.
Malinowski argues that had his view prevailed, the cascading and disastrous global effects of the Syrian civil war would have been mitigated — even prevented.
“The 5 million refugees, the rise of ISIS, chemical weapons attacks, the Russian intervention — I think we had a chance to prevent those things, and they had an impact well beyond Syria,” Malinowski said. “I don’t think Brexit would have happened if not for Syrian refugees flooding Europe and creating this fear of an immigrant invasion. It affected our politics in ways that can’t be quantified, but it certainly affected our politics. The fear of ISIS and the fear of refugees have been a powerful driver in western politics for the last few years. And both of those problems came to us courtesy of Syria.”
Searing foreign-policy dilemmas like Syria — when, and how, America should intervene abroad — have been dividing the Democratic Party for generations. During the Cold War, the left clashed with hawks like Washington Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson over how seriously to take the Soviet threat; after the Cold War ended, it was conflicts like Bosnia and Iraq that fueled heated intra-party debates. But even though Trump has scrambled the usual trench lines on national security through his mix of isolationism and pugnacious nationalism, the Democratic Party is surprisingly unified on these issues — for now.
House Democrats would be wise to take advantage of that unity, Malinowski argues, especially as the liberal firebrands fuel intra-party divisions that often grab headlines and drive unfavorable media coverage of the House Democratic majority.
His advice: Eyes on the prize.
“We have the same basic vision for the general direction the country should go in,” Malinowski told me in closing. “We have interesting differences about how to do it. But those differences are not going to play out in a meaningful way in the House in the next two years. Because Donald Trump is the glue that holds us all together. We know the countries in crisis. We know that this is not a time for transforming America. This is a time for saving America, preserving America. And there will be plenty of time, if we succeed in preserving our institutions, preserving our democracy, there will be plenty of time in the coming years to argue about differences in policy.”