Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J. spoke to Semafor on Wednesday by phone about his primary campaign against indicted Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. and the war between Israel and Hamas following a brutal attack on Israel over the weekend. Kim, a former diplomat, said he’s working with the Biden administration to get American citizens, including some of his constituents, out of Israel, and said he’s acutely worried about the violence spreading to other fronts. “ I’ve worked in the Middle East before,” Kim told Semafor. “I know how much of a powder keg so much of this could become.” This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Semafor: What’s your strategy to win in this primary, especially if Sen. Menendez does not ultimately drop out? Are you trying to pick up more endorsements from Senate Democrats?
Andy Kim: I am putting together what I believe will be the strongest campaign I have ever done in my life. Right now, we raised about $1 million in the first week. We’re scaling up on our staff and our team. I’m doing a lot of great meetings and engagements with Democratic party leaders across New Jersey, and that’s been going really well — making sure they have a sense of who I am and what I am trying to do. Some of them I know, some of them I haven’t gotten to know as well before. I feel like there’s a lot of great opportunities for us to talk about what this means for New Jersey. That’s been kind of my main focus right now: making sure that we can show we can run a top-notch statewide campaign and build out the operation and then get both state-level and national groups and leaders to get on board and support our movement here.
Semafor: You had a career at the State Department. Foreign policy is a huge focus of what you do. What would you do differently than Menendez on foreign policy? And how big of a focus will it be in your campaign?
Andy Kim: The campaign first and foremost right now is about restoring integrity. I think that is so integral to every aspect of politics. We live in the time of the greatest amount of distrust in government in modern American history. That affects our domestic policy and the divisions that we see, but it also affects our global leadership. Right now, we’re at a time where our broken government is something that other countries are looking at, both our allies as well as our adversaries and they’re looking at that and it’s affecting how they are posturing. Our allies and partners are worried about whether or not we are reliable, whether or not we are the kind of country that follows through. The way that I describe it based on my conversations is, they’re questioning what is the value of the American handshake right now. Just given what they call this whiplash of quick changes in American policies. Certainly that has been a big part of what I have focused in on.
But look, a big part of why I was concerned about the indictment against Sen. Menendez is because there are allegations he was using his position as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in ways that were, if true, just wrong. And whether that is about engaging with the government of Egypt, potentially putting forward sensitive information about U.S. personnel at the embassy or other things, that is deeply alarming and that is deeply worrying and as someone who worked as a career person at the State Department before, worked in embassies before, that just was over the line and — if true — something that we, of course, need to repair. I hope to show, as someone who was a career State Department officer, worked in national security, that I can bring a different kind of steadiness and leadership to the work that I do in the Senate.
Semafor: Can you say how you’re feeling about the situation in Israel coming out of the classified briefing today and signs the war may be widening?
Andy Kim: It’s a big part of my concern coming out of the classified briefing today and it’s been at the top of my mind of just nightmare scenarios just for the last couple of days. How do we try to prevent this from becoming a two-front war for Israel to fight? And it looks like it may be moving in that direction. That’s going to be very tough … The likelihood of this violence spreading and becoming regional is something that is very, very real and I’m really worried about that as someone that has worked in national security before. I’ve worked in the Middle East before. I know how much of a powder keg so much of this could become. It’s very scary right now. I’m just trying to do my best from Congress’ side working with the administration. What are our tools at our disposal? How do we try to make sure that Americans are safe? I’ve been working around the clock to try to get American citizens in Israel that want to get out, to be able to get them out of there, bring them back home. A lot of concerns that I have are about Lebanon: I have a lot of friends, a lot of people I know that are there. There’s very much a lot going through my mind that I hope we can press the gas on and come up with real tangible actions that the U.S. can do to try to stabilize this as best as we can.
Semafor: What has your office been dealing with? Do you have constituents who are impacted?
Andy Kim: I have constituents that were there for the holiday that weren’t able to get flights back home because the flights were all canceled. There really are no flights going straight to the U.S. they’re trying to get out to other countries but as you can imagine the airport is jammed. They’re really worried, especially given the news we are seeing about Hezbollah. It’s very, very scary. We’ve definitely been pressing on that. That was raised a number of times including in the session today with the State Department. That’s something that we’re going to be continuing to work with them on and try to find a path forward as soon as possible.
Semafor: Is there a role for the U.S. military to play there in terms of an evacuation?
Andy Kim: There could be. In similar-ish type situations — again, I’ve worked at the State Department and I’ve seen some of this in action before — it could also be charter flights and other things. There could be different options that are available. Our military certainly is engaged in so much of this right now in terms of just the security for Israel, so I certainly want to make sure that that is also at the forefront. But, look, our main goal of our government is to keep Americans safe. And so, to me, this is of the utmost priority. I’ll be honest, the death toll for Americans continues to climb, the concerns about hostages, it’s a lot. It’s a lot to process and try to think through how we prioritize it. But that has to be at the very top of the list in terms of our responsibilities, in addition to making sure we’re there absolutely for our partner in Israel.
Semafor: What’s your current impression on the most pressing needs for Israel and what the U.S. is going to be sending in addition to what’s been announced already?
Andy Kim: The [Iron Dome] interceptors and artillery munitions, those are at the very top of the list. … the good news is that our partnership is so deep with Israel and there’s no country in the world that has a more broad as well as deep partnership with our military than israel. So there’s already a lot of tools, already a lot of flexibility. I’m hearing from our government so far that they currently have the authority that they believe they’ll need, they’ll come back to us if they need anything more, but this is exactly why we’ve been building this strong partnership — we can absolutely kick it into high gear. We also need the Senate to move forward on a U.S. ambassador to Israel. I’d like to see that move literally as soon as possible. There are also ambassadorships to other nations in the Middle East that we need to move forward on. And of course, now as ever, we need our military leadership in place and we need to have that senator [Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., who is currently leading a blockade of military promotions over abortion policy] realize that our national security is at stake here. We’ve got a war in Europe and a war in the Middle East, we need to be firing on all cylinders, have everybody in the right place.
Q: There’s been discussion about potentially linking Ukraine aid to Israel assistance. What’s your thinking on that?
Andy Kim: The current thinking, that I think Chairman McCaul is thinking about on the Foreign Affairs Committee, is about having Israel and Ukraine, I think even possibly Taiwan, be part of that. There is very strong bipartisan support for Ukraine. We’ve seen it both in the House and the Senate. I think, again, it gets to that broader question of what is American leadership right now? What does it mean for others to be able to count on us? And it would be absolutely devastating if Ukraine is not something that we can move with the speed that we need to. That would really weaken our coalition, not just for Ukraine, but for what we’re trying to build up when it comes to Israel. Again, it gets to the heart of this question of: Is America a reliable partner. What does it say to others about whether we can be trusted, what our word means? And that has huge implications. Huge. So, I absolutely think we should move forward with haste and support our allies in all of these conflicts that are unfortunately happening. Our adversaries would only be emboldened if we take our foot off the gas.