Sen. Jeff Merkley expanded his policy portfolio at the beginning of the new Congress by joining the Foreign Relations Committee. The Oregon Democrat sat down with Adam Wollner Tuesday in his Washington office to discuss some of the most pressing foreign policy and national security issues facing the country.
Sen. Chris Murphy pledged to reintroduce legislation intended to block President Trump’s revised travel ban. You supported the initial bill. Do you support this one as well?
Yeah, I’ll back him up on that. I think this is a big mistake for our national security. It reinforces the impression that the United States is at war with Islam. That gives wonderful recruiting material to ISIS.
Do you think the travel ban will survive legal challenges?
It’s clearly been written to have a lot more nuance than before, to take out the things that were the easiest targets for a court case. But still at the heart of it is a religious screen. We’ll see what the courts say. One of the things is that the administration presented very little evidence that this serves national security, and it’s not at all clear they have much of a stronger case this time around.
Many Democrats have called for a special prosecutor or independent commission to investigate Trump’s ties to Russia, but most Republicans aren’t willing to go that far. Is there any way Democrats can force the GOP’s hand on this?
We have members of the Republican Senate caucus—such as John McCain, Lindsey Graham—who are very supportive of getting to the bottom of this. And I think that there’s a lot of other Republican senators who have been quiet, but who understand that Russian meddling in the U.S. elections is of great significance to the foundations of our democratic republic, and that we have to learn everything about this in order to make sure that doesn’t happen again and to help other countries resist Russian meddling. So hopefully we can build a bipartisan coalition that says, “We absolutely must know the answers.”
What do you think it will take for some Republicans to go public with some of their concerns?
I think, if there’s a specific proposal before us, that we can get an amendment on the floor on some bill that proposes a bipartisan commission, and if such an amendment has some bipartisan sponsorship, that would be an excellent way for all of us to take a public stand to debate it.
Will you continue to push Republicans to support a special prosecutor or independent commission?
Certainly. I sure will. I believe for many of them, they recognize what occurred. While we don’t know how much the Trump campaign coordinated with the Russians, what we do know is a lot that’s in the public space. … We know a lot about what the Russians did. We need to learn a lot more about the details of that, and we need to get to the bottom of whether there was collusion [with] the Trump campaign. Any such collusion is a traitorous act. And this has to be treated with utmost seriousness.
Do you have confidence in the current investigations being led by the House and Senate intelligence committees?
No. Investigations that happen in the Intelligence Committee only happen with the speed and robustness that the chairs of those two committees have. When Senator [Richard] Burr weighed in publicly to carry the message that the administration hadn’t been involved, it took away from the sense that we have full support from the chair for a robust investigation. And intelligence committees are places—they’re like a black hole in the astronomical world, in which light goes in and nothing comes out.
Many of your colleagues on both sides of the aisle criticized the White House’s initial budget plan, which called for a 37 percent budget cut to the State Department and foreign-aid programs. Would you be open to a smaller budget cut, or one that’s implemented over a longer period of time?
I’d like to see what’s being suggested, but the best way to keep from having a war which results in the bloodshed of our sons and daughters is to exercise a fully competent diplomatic program. In general, the dollars invested in the State Department and in diplomacy—every dollar is well spent.
The Foreign Relations Committee is holding a hearing on the conflict in Yemen on Thursday. Does there need to be a congressional investigation into the raid there in January that resulted in the death of a Navy SEAL?
I do think there needs to be an investigation. When things go wrong on a major raid like that that was planned over a period of time, we need to understand what went wrong so that we avoid making such mistakes again.