Washington (AFP) - The incoming head of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee warned Thursday of election-related sanctions against Russia and vowed oversight of Donald Trump's diplomacy, which he said had made Americans "laughingstocks."
Representative Eliot Engel, who is the presumptive next chairman of the committee after Democrats triumphed in November 6 elections, vowed the new Congress would question the executive branch, a constitutional role he said the Republicans neglected for fear of irritating Trump.
In an interview with AFP in his House office, decorated with pictures of him meeting leaders from Nelson Mandela to the Dalai Lama and namecards of himself in myriad alphabets, the 30-year congressional veteran from New York said he remained outraged at Russia's actions in the 2016 elections.
Engel said the Democratic-led House is ready to punish Russia if it is determined that the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow, an allegation being probed by special counsel Robert Mueller.
"I think if we find out that for sure that we were compromised in our elections, I think there should be, absolutely, sanctions," Engel said.
"I think this is a whole new ballgame because the Congress that we're leaving was under a lot of pressure with the Republican majority to try to leave the president alone -- not to question, not to ask. And my attitude is that my country is more important than my party," he said.
The Trump administration has taken a number of actions against Russia including expelling 60 officials over the attempted assassination with a chemical agent of a Russian double agent in Britain.
But Trump has repeatedly denounced the Mueller investigation as a "witch hunt" and sought warm relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, including at a summit in July in Helsinki where the US leader's tepid public appearance triggered wide rebuke.
Trump later backtracked by saying he had made a grammatical error and had not meant to accept Putin's denials of electoral interference.
- Turning US into 'laughingstocks' -
Engel, who will enjoy the power to call witnesses from the administration, said he would seek answers on what happened behind closed doors in Helsinki and during other diplomatic meetings by the Trump administration.
"The United States must continue to be the leaders of the free world and be a country that people look up to. Right now they're not looking up to us," he said.
"We're kind of the laughingstocks. We're here, we're there, we're all over the place," he said.
Alluding to Trump's recent Twitter barrage against French President Emmanuel Macron, Engel said: "Putin becomes our friend and the UK and Germany and France become adversaries. Canada becomes an adversary. Mexico, all we care about is building a wall. All these foolish things that sort of turn everything on its side. We need to change that."
He promised to press for a "more humane immigration policy," voicing outrage at the Trump administration's policy of separating children from immigrants who cross into the United States without authorization.
"The president's almost obsession with Latin American people coming to this country is just beyond belief," Engel said.
- Resisting aid cuts -
Engel, who recently met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, made clear he would fight back if Trump again proposes sweeping reductions to the State Department and US assistance budgets, noting that even the Republican Congress disagreed with the cuts.
He said he would also use his power to explore the "all-time low" in morale at the State Department, voicing alarm that long-term employees have felt compelled to leave.
In contrast to many Democrats, Engel -- a staunch supporter of Israel -- opposed the nuclear deal with Iran negotiated under former president Barack Obama.
But Engel criticized Trump's withdrawal from the accord still backed by Europeans, saying the move isolated the United States rather than Iran.
He voiced fear that Trump was turning US foreign policy into a "hodgepodge" without continuity.
If a country has "gone along with an agreement with us, and the next president comes in and just upends it, what countries will continue to sign these things with us? Because there is no security for them."