Wednesday Q+A with Sen. Jeff Merkley

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.