AP Photo/Gregory Bull
The second coming of Darrell Issa
The former congressman is poised to represent the historically conservative 50th district of California, which includes a large swath of San Diego County
After a brief spell in the political wilderness, Darrell Issa, the former longtime California congressman and car alarm magnate, is now preparing to rejoin his Republican colleagues in the House — and he wants to make clear that he hasn’t gotten rusty in the interim.
“I’m just a little bit more refreshed,” he said in an interview with Jewish Insider on Friday.
The past two years have been unusually sedate for the 67-year-old Issa, who established a reputation as one of the Obama administration’s most dedicated adversaries during his combative tenure chairing the House Oversight Committee, where he led the Benghazi investigation. In 2018, however, he gave up the fight, relinquishing his seat in California’s 49th congressional district when it looked as if he would lose to a Democrat — ending a nearly two-decade run in the House.
Issa had set his sights on the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, thanks to an appointment from President Donald Trump in 2018. But his nomination was stonewalled in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) over an FBI background check, and he was never confirmed. “I think Bob Menendez was just looking to get a pound of revenge,” Issa speculated in an interview with JI last March.
If Issa is still sore about losing the post, he also sought to convey the impression that he had by no means been defanged. “I was supposed to have a hearing, and Sen. Menendez blew up the hearing,” he said on Friday afternoon. “I went back to the White House the following day and told the president I thought I should switch to holding this seat for my party, and he agreed.”
The congressman is poised to represent the historically conservative 50th district of California, which includes a large swath of San Diego County. Issa was accused of opportunism as he campaigned in a district that sits adjacent to his old one, but he said his priorities have always remained the same and rejected the notion that congressional lines had much meaning.
“The idea that you represent some very fine lines drawn by some gerrymandering authority, I think, just wouldn’t be appropriate,” he said. “I think anyone would say, wait a second, you represent your country first, your state second and a region third.”
Despite polling that suggested Issa would have a close race, he prevailed over his Democratic opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, by more than eight percentage points in the November 3 election.
Issa, for his part, said he never doubted that he would defeat Campa-Najjar — who told JI that he is now planning to write a book about his complex relationship to his late Palestinian grandfather’s alleged involvement in the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. But Issa nevertheless acknowledged that he had to fight for the seat after a contentious primary battle that hobbled him leading into the general election.
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist, and I’m not, to know that when $5 million is spent bashing you in the primary you have some work to do in the general to fix that,” he said, alluding in part to an attack ad from American Unity PAC that took aim at some of his past statements on Israel. “It’s not only not my first rodeo,” he added, “but it’s not the first time the bull threw me either.”
The general election battle was also strained as Issa and Campa-Najjar, both of Arab descent, took turns attacking one another over, among other things, their fealty to Israel — even though, according to questionnaires solicited by JI, they hold largely the same views when it comes to the Jewish state.
While Issa, whose paternal grandfather was born in Lebanon, accused his opponent without evidence of being against a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Campa-Najjar charged that Issa had called Israel an “apartheid state” and expressed sympathy for Hezbollah.
Issa has denied the allegations, noting that some of his comments have been taken out of context. “Whether someone agrees with me or not, I have two things I’m consistent about,” he said. “I’m an unapologetic supporter of Israel, and I’m willing to go and meet with any leader any time to be better educated without necessarily agreeing with them, but at least hearing them out.”
During his time in Congress, Issa noted, he met with Muammar Gaddafi as well as Yasser Arafat and Bashar al-Assad. “I’m not afraid to listen to people that I disagree with in the hopes that they will listen to me and their ways will be changed.”
It was such an attitude, Issa believes, that allowed the Trump administration to broker historic normalization deals with Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates, which he supports enthusiastically. “For Jared Kushner and the rest of the team,” he said, referring to Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, “it happened because they believed in it and because they were willing to go anywhere, meet with anyone, to try to achieve it.”
Issa supports a two-state solution and claims that he is “perfectly willing” to engage in good faith with the Palestinian Authority, but he is doubtful that he will be able to do that in the immediate future. “I view these normalizations as an opportunity for the Palestinians to say we would like to normalize relations, let’s sit down and really make that effort anew, and do it sooner rather than later,” he said. “But so far, I see no movement.”
He amended his remark by pointing out that he has seen “a lot of good people within the Palestinian community who want to go a different way.” But, he added, “I don’t see a Palestinian Authority that’s geared to do it, and obviously, as long as Hamas is funded, and well-funded, by Iran, and Hezbollah is still a reality, I’m not sure where we go except to have those conversations and tell them that these are the changes that are needed if they’re going to enjoy what they tell us is their goal.”
Though he was initially cold to Trump at the beginning of the 2016 presidential campaign, Issa has since embraced the president wholeheartedly (and the feeling is apparently mutual). In conversation with JI, he singled out Trump’s approach to Israel for praise, commending his decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“President after president promised to move the embassy to the building we built for that purpose,” Issa said. “Even though it was called a consulate, that building was built to be the embassy just waiting for a president to issue the order.”
Issa refused to acknowledge that Trump had lost the election, even as the president’s increasingly desperate legal efforts to disenfranchise millions of voters have been struck down in the courts and condemned by a smattering of Republican leaders.
“We don’t know the outcome of the legal battles, so I don’t want to be presumptuous beyond what’s fair, but I think the one thing that we can know is that President Trump has grown the party,” Issa said, citing the president’s strong showing with Latino voters this cycle. “He’s given us an opportunity to continue reaching out to people who became Trump voters.”
Still, Issa seemed willing to allow for the possibility that Trump wouldn’t be in the White House next term. “I would be much happier if President Trump prevails in these legal challenges,” Issa said, “but for a moment, assuming he didn’t, then our job is to work with the president but not to work for the president.”
One issue on which he isn’t willing to budge is the Iran nuclear deal. President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to return to the agreement brokered by his old boss, former President Barack Obama, and which Trump abandoned in 2018. But Issa, who described Iran as “an existential threat to the region,” said that he would fight to keep the United States out of it.
“The undoing of that agreement, and the successes based on a much closer relationship with Israel and asking for and getting Arab nations to come to the table, has worked,” he said. “So, with all due respect if Biden becomes president, the failed policies of President Obama should not be considered for a return. I mean, they’re just that, they’re proven to have failed, versus the policies that have gotten us a lot further down the peace trail.”
That isn’t to say he doesn’t envision reaching across the aisle on occasion. Issa expressed admiration for some Democratic members of his California congressional delegation, including Reps. Juan Vargas (D-CA) and Scott Peters (D-CA). On foreign affairs, he said, “Juan and I see eye-to-eye with some frequency, and Scott and I have done immigration reform and other issues together.”
On the Republican side, Issa said he is looking forward to reengaging with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) as well as minority whip Steve Scalise (R-LA). “They early on endorsed me and supported me,” Issa said, “and that makes a difference when it’s not a close call in the beginning.”
Issa told JI that the leading Republicans on the three House committees he previously sat on — including judiciary, oversight and foreign affairs — have all asked him back. “The intent,” he said, summarizing his approach as he readies himself for a new term in Congress, “is to return to the committees of jurisdiction I’ve historically been involved with and continue a lot of the work that I was doing on transparency.”
“I always tell people, the idea that you’re going to do something new after 18 years — the only thing new is that two years of sitting on the sidelines, waiting to be confirmed, gave me a perspective,” he said. “But it’s not going to change the basic goals that I had when I was in Congress.”