House Democrats charged with national security oversight say the Trump administration is effectively refusing to testify before Congress about an initiative to reduce global conflict and improve women’s security that was spearheaded by Ivanka Trump.
The standoff is deepening House Democrats’ concerns about the administration’s attitude toward oversight and about some of its policies concerning women and girls, which they say may be undermining the Women, Peace and Security Strategy unveiled in June 2019.
It also illustrates the challenges of conducting government business as the coronavirus pandemic maintains its grip on the country.
The WPS strategy, which won bipartisan praise, recognized the link between women’s empowerment and global peace and security, and noted that countries that marginalize women socially and politically are more likely to experience conflict. The departments of State, Defense and Homeland Security and the US Agency for International Development unveiled plans to implement the strategy on June 11.
But when Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, the chairwoman of the House Oversight Committee, and Rep. Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts, chairman of the subcommittee on national security, asked officials from the agencies to testify about those plans in a virtual hearing, in keeping with Covid precautions, the administration countered by saying they would only send officials to testify in person.
In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the acting leaders of DHS and USAID, Maloney and Lynch noted that on June 11, all four agencies allowed officials to discuss their plans to implement the WPS strategy in an online webinar held by the Washington Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
“Like the American Enterprise Institute, the Subcommittee planned to hold its event remotely to avoid unnecessarily exposing the Capitol Police, custodial workers, and other essential frontline workers to the risks of the coronavirus pandemic, which has surged dangerously over the past several weeks,” Maloney and Lynch wrote. “Despite these risks, your departments refused,” citing White House guidance “which demands that both the Chairman and witnesses appear in person, regardless of the health risks to frontline workers.”
The Department of Homeland Security and USAID had not responded to requests for comment as of Tuesday afternoon. The Defense Department referred queries to the White House. The State Department addressed questions the Democrats raised about the Strategy itself, but did not address the administration’s decision to insist that officials would only attend a hearing in person.
Besides this “obstruction,” the Democrats said they have concerns that “since assuming office, the Trump Administration has aggressively pursued policies that conflict with its own Women, Peace, and Security Strategy.”
They pointed to the Trump administration’s February 2020 peace agreement with the Taliban that includes no guarantees to protect the rights of women and girls and instead leaves the issue to be handled internally.
The Taliban’s oppression of women and girls during the 1990s — barring them from schools, jobs or even leaving their houses without a male guardian — drove US policies that began during the administration of President George W. Bush and were meant to improve protections, opportunities and rights for Afghan women and girls. Regional experts say the Taliban are now more powerful than they have been in many years, as they negotiate with a divided Afghan government.
A State Department spokesperson told CNN that “differences among Afghans about how the country should be governed will be settled in intra-Afghan negotiations. It is up to the Afghans to find a resolution that is unique to their circumstances, just like every other country.” The spokesperson, speaking on background, added that “we have pressed for an inclusive Afghan national team that represents all Afghans, including women and minorities and other Afghans who want to preserve Afghanistan’s gains, especially the rule of law and democratic values.”
The House Democrats also flagged a disconnect with the WPS strategy, which says the administration will “prevent and respond to violence against women and girls,” including sexual violence, human trafficking and slavery, in part by “supporting multilateral efforts, including at the United Nations (UN).”
The letter notes that in April 2019, the administration threatened to veto a UN resolution on combating rape as a weapon of war, because it included language on reproductive and sexual health. It also notes that the Trump administration has pulled funding from the UN Population Fund, saying the organization had used those US funds for sexual and reproductive health services and programs to fight gender-based violence that helped millions of women and girls worldwide.
In response, the State Department pointed to a statement issued by the US mission to the United Nations in April 2019 saying that the US “strongly condemns violence against or exploitation of women and girls at all times, including during humanitarian crises,” but the statement made clear that the administration’s reservations were about certain reproductive health policies that it feels promote abortion.
“At the UN and elsewhere, the United States will continue its work to build consensus on clear terminology that would better promote women’s health without also promoting abortion,” the statement said.
The issue of reproductive rights, which the Trump administration has largely seen as code for abortion, has been a sticking point dividing the US on one side and the UN, foreign development agencies and women’s health experts on the other.
Advocates for the UN say the US move to defund the UN’s Population Fund has robbed women of access to contraception, and they argue that giving women and girls the ability to control their reproductive cycles and their own bodies is key to their gaining the economic and political empowerment the WPS Strategy supports.
This story has been updated to include additional State Department response.