U.S. Senator from Connecticut (D); Member, Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent, NBC News; Host, Andrea Mitchell Reports, MSNBC
Senator Chris Murphy discusses the latest on Congress and COVID-19, and the progressive foreign policy debate.
MITCHELL: I am Andrea Mitchell, NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent. And welcome to Senator Murphy, of course, from the Foreign Relations Committee and the top Democrat on the Middle East Subcommittee.
Senator, we have more than 350 people joining us. High interest in this today. And we will have questions a half-hour from now and get to as many of them as we can. First, I wanted to ask you about COVID-19. We have passed this horrible milestone of a hundred thousand Americans—more than a hundred thousand Americans now having died from the coronavirus. From your perspective, what does America need to do globally, as well as domestically? And how would you assess the problems that we’ve experienced, with a lot of criticism of our domestic and global response?
MURPHY: Andrea, thank you very much for this conversation. I’m looking forward to it. Thanks to all my friends at CFR. I’m glad to see a large number of folks on the call today. You know, I was in Connecticut yesterday morning at a food pantry in southwestern Connecticut on the border with New York. And they are just absolutely overwhelmed with demand right now. They simply can’t put enough food on the shelves to be able to satisfy the need. What we’re seeing now are the families that, you know, literally had no savings. So the minute that they were laid off they all of a sudden were unable to feed their family. But there’s millions of other families across the country, tens of thousands in Connecticut, who had, you know, a week, or two weeks, or a month’s worth of savings but are all of a sudden going to be showing up at those same food pantry lines over the summer.
And so we have an economic cataclysm on our hands right now that cannot be dealt with if we don’t recognize that we are still not doing enough to meet the public health emergency. Listen, China is going to have to answer a lot of questions as to why it didn’t share, and why it continues to refuse to share adequate information regarding the origins of this virus. There is no reason that a hundred thousand Americans had to die. This president’s failure—abysmal failure to stand up an effective national response, his refusal to do so, is going to be a stain on his legacy that will rival the stain of the legacy of any prior president. And we are still clearly not out of the woods.
Effectively, after the travel ban failed the president gave up. He did not implement a national testing plan. He did not take control of the medical equipment control supply chain. He did not ask the CDC to provide a national plan for the closing, and then reopening of schools and businesses. He did not join together with other nations to try to most effectively produce a vaccine. And today we have fifty different state responses. Many of them are being undermined now by a president who is trying to cheerlead states to reopen in violation of his own administration’s plan to reopen America. And so we may see a spike or maybe a long-term flattening in terms of the number of infections and deaths because the president refuses to press states to comply with the plan that his own administration proffered.
So in Connecticut, we need more tests. And we can’t produce those without the help of the federal government. We need a vaccine. And that can’t happen if the United States refuses to join the international coalition to produce that vaccine. And we need help to prevent our state and our hospitals from going bankrupt. And that can’t happen without another relief package—one that right now Republicans in the Senate and the president do not support.
So this is still an ongoing crisis. And as much as the president wants to wish it to go away in order to improve his reelection opportunities, we need him to be engaged. We need Senate Republicans to be engaged. And as we speak today, they are not. We’ll be back in session next week working on judges and administration officials being appointed to agencies that have nothing to do with COVID. We should be working on legislation to address the crisis.
MITCHELL: Now, you have just released a new proposed bill—and it is bipartisan. You’ve got Senator Risch on it. What are the chances of that, and how would that address some of these urgent problems?
MURPHY: Yeah. I’m excited about this proposal. As you mentioned, it’s just being released right now as we speak. Senator Risch is the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. He and I spent last week drafting this bill, which is a $3 billion authorization for new international public health programming, and a rewrite of much of the structure that undergirds that programming. We established a new coordinating council in the State Department. We set a path to reestablish the capacity in the National Security Council to oversee pandemic preparedness that President Trump stood down. We get the United States into the international vaccine program, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.
And then we establish a new program whereby we kind of follow the model of the Millennium Challenge Grant program, whereby the United States signed contracts with developing nations for economic development funding. We would do the same thing to help vulnerable nations stand up public health infrastructure, put American money—significant American money—into these countries in exchange for their long-term plan to reform their own systems with the American money that we put in.
So I think this has a very good chance of passing, given that the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee is behind it. I hope that it will be part of whatever product passes through the Senate in the coming weeks. And we’re pushing this now because we don’t have the luxury of waiting. The next pandemic may be on us this winter, or next spring. And so we can’t wait until we have turned the corner on coronavirus to fix the mistakes that got us to this point today, where we have this immense American vulnerability to international viruses.
MITCHELL: Well, the last thing we heard from Secretary Mnuchin and from the president is: Let’s wait till all the other money gets spent before they come back and revisit this.
MURPHY: Yeah, we can’t wait. In part because it’s not just a matter of money. It’s a matter of structures. I mean, let’s just step back for a second and understand how mis-resourced we are. I made the case at CFR in the past that, you know, we are just fundamentally misallocated when it comes to how we spend our resources versus the actual threats to U.S. security. And I, way before anybody had heard of coronavirus, was giving speeches at CFR saying that the real threats to the United States’ security are pandemics, or are stateless actors, propaganda machines, climate change. Not necessarily a conventional military invasion.
And yet, we’ve been spending, you know, about fifty to one hundred times the amount of money on conventional military hardware as we have been on public health programming. So that allocation has to flip. But we also have to bring new structures. So that’s why our legislation does create this new leadership structure at the State Department, reestablishes that structure at the NSC, and puts in place new partnership programs with other countries. So, yeah, we need to spend the money that’s been allocated. But we also need to start shifting the infrastructure that exists so that it can more effectively spend what I hope will be a long-term commitment to plus-up funding for global health infrastructure beyond the $12 billion it gets a year. And remember, six (billion dollars) of that is for PEPFAR. So really non-PEPFAR international public health programming gets about 1 percent of the budget that the rest of the Department of Defense and State gets.
MITCHELL: Is there anything that you in the Senate can do—as a Democrat in the Senate, minority member—can do about the stepping back from the World Health Organization? Despite whatever lapse there was back in January with the World Health Organization, and they have argued that they were in fact in real time, on January 23, briefing about human-to-human transmission in China. So they are rejecting the criticism that overall they were bowing to Chinese pressure and not reporting it accurately. Whatever happened back in January, now the president is taking money from the World Health Organization. The U.S. was the only global leader not present in London at the recent meetings. Is there anything that Democrats can do without having the Senate majority?
MURPHY: I think there’s very little that we can do, largely because this isn’t a policy imperative from the administration. It’s a political project. The assault on the WHO really has nothing to do with objections the administration has to the way in which the WHO operates. It’s simply about the administration’s need to find a scapegoat to try to distract the American public from its failings and try to convince folks that it was actually the WHO that was responsible for a hundred thousand Americans dying. Listen, the WHO has inefficiencies and failings, just like every other major multilateral organization.
But if this president cared so much about WHO reform then why the hell did he leave our slot on the WHO’s governing board vacant for the entirety of his term? We just two weeks ago, maybe a week ago, appointed a representative to the WHO board. We didn’t have anybody there for the first three years of the president’s administration. So guess what? If the president cared about reform, there was no way for us to litigate that case. This is really just about the president trying to go find political scapegoats. And ultimately, it is likely going to be this election that will determine whether the United States walks away from international bodies or seriously seeks to reform them.
The letter the president sent last week was full of political diatribes. Didn’t mention one tangible reform that the president actually wants them to engage in. And of course, his primary complaint is that China is too close to the WHO. Well, then he’s, frankly, creating the problem that he’s seeking to solve by walking away from the WHO which, as you mentioned, China is more than glad to fill that vacuum that we create, announcing just two weeks ago that they are going to make a $2 billion commitment to global public health.
MITCHELL: Well, speaking of China, we’ve got, you know, President Xi participating virtually in the WHO London meeting. No representation from the U.S. And now, using the pandemic, arguably, China is cracking down on Hong Kong, imposing its national security legislation as we speak on Hong Kong. And Secretary Pompeo announcing, declaring, that Hong Kong no longer enjoys the autonomy that gives it protection for its economic activities. So the president is considering sanctions at this stage. What should we do with this dilemma that whatever the president does against China will also affect American investors, and American businesspeople, and the people of Hong Kong?
MURPHY: Well, this is a serious moment. And the United States needs to stand by the protesters in Hong Kong and needs to stand up for the ability for Hong Kong to be able to have its own security presence inside the city. And I agree with you that the Chinese are likely using this pandemic as an excuse or as cover to make these drastic, damaging changes. But I also think that President Xi feels like he’s got a clock ticking, that he needs to make these moves before the end of the Trump administration.
Remember, there’s really been no international leader, other than President Xi, who has done more to harm the Hong Kong protesters’ cause than Donald Trump. It was President Trump who got on the phone last summer with President Xi and greenlighted his crackdown on Hong Kong. Because the president was so myopically focused on his trade negotiations with Xi, he told him privately that he would raise no issue with his efforts to bring Hong Kong more closely under the control of Beijing. The president opposed the congressional law that eventually was passed and signed, under protest. And let’s remember the certification that Secretary Pompeo just made was one required by that law, the law that the president didn’t want passed in the first place.
So I think that Xi is moving so fast because he knows it’s less likely that he can take these steps under President Biden. He knows that President Biden will be much more likely to be able to rally an international effort to cause China to pay costs for this crackdown that President Trump could never effectuate. China’s been thinking about taking these moves for years. There have been protests in Hong Kong for years. But it wasn’t until President Trump quietly greenlit this crackdown that President Xi moved forward with it. And I think he’s moving fast not just because he knows the world is distracted by coronavirus, but also because he wants to get this done before President Biden is potentially sworn into office.
MITCHELL: Let me ask you about oversight and the firing of the inspectors general, most recently, of course, Steve Linick from the State Department. My reporting and others is that he was, among other things, looking into the Saudi arms deal, $8 billion, without—bypassing Congress and significant bipartisan objections—so without congressional approval, under an emergency justification. What can be done? Senator Grassley has been calling for answers to this, and to three others who’ve been fired in the last six weeks under very—without any explanation from the White House. Senator Grassley has just gotten answers that do not give him any explanation or justification for the firings. But the law does give the president total authority with this.
MURPHY: Yes. Senate Republicans are pretty good at sending occasional letters to this president. They’re less effective at actually taking actions to stop the president from undoing the mechanisms of oversight. These executive departments have gotten so big over the years that Congress relies on inspectors general who are embedded in these bureaucracies to do effective oversight. We simply can’t see for ourselves potential conflicts of interest, and mismanagement, and fraud, and abuse. And many prior presidents have seen these inspector generals as their friend as well, because it’s also hard to, you know, see all of these potential problems from the White House. And so inspectors general can be reporting fraud and abuse that a president can act upon.
And so instead of seeing these IGs as assets, this president sees them as liabilities. And as the State Department IG, I don’t think it’s any mystery as to what happened with the attempt by Secretary Pompeo to go around congressional approval processes for the latest Saudi arms sale. We all knew why he wasn’t bringing that deal to Congress. He knew that Congress would oppose it. And so he created a fake emergency in order to try to make the sale without congressional oversight. So the extent that the IG was going to make a report that confirmed that, it really wouldn’t have been Earth-shattering. But maybe the IG had additional information about the reasons for this bizarre coziness between the Trump administration and the Saudis.
We have always wanted to know more information about the financial connections between Trump and members of his Cabinet and the Saudi regime. And it could be that the IG had information that would have helped us unwind and better understand those connections. We will never know, because every Friday night, or every other Friday night, we’re becoming used to an IG being summarily dismissed.
MITCHELL: And the new IGs that are appointed in three out of the four cases are from within those departments. So there is a built-in conflict of interest. How can whistleblowers be protected if their identity is known to someone who is working for the Cabinet secretary?
MURPHY: Yeah. I mean, these new IGs are simply not going to be effective at their job. And I mean, listen, this stands amidst a pattern of behaviors from this president in which he believes in the theory of the unitary executive. He does not believe that he is subject to check and control. Part of his defense to impeachment was that the president has the complete and total authority to condition foreign aid on any—on anything that he believes is in the interest of the United States. And it is his sole decision as to what is in the interest of the United States. And there is no mechanism by which Congress, even through the power of impeachment, can contest that decision. And so this, I think, stands as very consistent with a larger pattern of behavior by this president, which would, you know, ultimately transition this country’s government into something very different than a democracy if future presidents held themselves to the same standard.
MITCHELL: I want to ask you about election security. That’s one of the issues that the president has been actively engaged on Twitter, opposing mail-in voting, which is what actually prompted Twitter to, some would say belated, do fact-checking on those tweets. What concerns do you have about election security? We have a new director of national intelligence this week. He has been very partisan in the past. He has promised that he won’t be in the future. But there is some indication that the elections security briefings to the Hill have not been as robust as they were before.
MURPHY: Well, Rick Grenell promised to the Foreign Relations Committee that he would forsake politics if he was appointed to be ambassador to Germany, and notwithstanding those promises he turned out to be one of the most political and politically charged ambassadors that we have had, and carried that behavior into this short tenure at the helm of the national intelligence infrastructure. Listen, Ratcliffe has been put in this position to do the political bidding of the president—period, stop. And the political bidding of the president includes encouraging foreign actors to interfere in the election to benefit the president. That is a chilling development. And I objected to John Ratcliffe’s nomination because I knew exactly why he was being put in place.
I have been, frankly, fairly impressed in the past at the briefings that I have gotten from the administration on election security efforts. I think certainly leading up to the 2018 election there was a significant autonomy of the people at DNI, at the FBI, at the NSA who were working on election security. There was a wall of separation between the president’s Twitter feed and his campaign, and the actions that the people at those agencies and the Department of Homeland Security were taking. I think that probably annoyed the president. and that is probably one of the reasons that people like Rick Grenell and Congressman Ratcliffe are now part of the upper echelons of this administration. So I worry that we are going to see a quick and dramatic atrophying of this administration’s attempts to stop foreign influence in the 2020 election in the coming months.
MITCHELL: Do you have any evidence that Ratcliffe is openly encouraging foreign actors?
MURPHY: No. I just know that the president has done so in the past, even after he was sworn in. He made clear to one of your colleagues that if he was offered information on a future political opponent he would not report that to the FBI. And so I firmly believe that this president has, as part of his reelection strategy, a belief that foreign actors will come to his aid. And it’s entirely consistent with this behavior that would put into place people that control the intelligence agencies, control the election agencies, that will look the other way.
MITCHELL: The president has said that he wants to withdraw troops from Afghanistan before the election, or on a very rapid timetable. There’s been now the release of the Taliban prisoners, which was part of the proposed peace deal, and the agreement between Abdullah Abdullah and President Ghani on a coalition in Kabul. Are we about to see the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, some four thousand troops?
MURPHY: Well, President Trump has made it very clear that he wants to move those troops out very quickly. I have been generally supportive of using our remaining military platform in Afghanistan as leverage to try to create an agreement with the Taliban in order to make sure that al-Qaida, or affiliates of al-Qaida, aren’t able to regain a foothold in Afghanistan after we leave.
I have, you know, just watched our misadventures in Afghanistan play out for long enough to know that there is likely no ability for the United States to leave Afghanistan with a government that is completely free and clean of corruption, and a Taliban that is defeated. I think we have to understand what our most vital U.S. interests are. And in this case, they are making sure that al-Qaida never again uses Afghanistan to launch attacks against the United States. And we have an interest in giving the Afghan government a fighting chance to be able to, you know, ultimately rule that country in a way that keeps the Taliban at bay. I think the Afghan government has used the U.S. military and diplomatic infrastructure as a kind of crutch over the years. And I think it does make sense to be in these negotiations, and to use our presence there as leverage to get a deal.
Listen, I think the president is, you know, unfortunately, a wild card. And as we’ve seen over and over again, even as negotiators in Afghanistan make progress, he can undermine and undercut that progress on a whim. But the general project is one that’s worthwhile.
MITCHELL: I know we only have a few minutes before we’re going to open it up to questions. Let me give you a chance to speak on the tragedy that is inflicting again this country in race relations, and what is happening in Minnesota, which has now spread—these protests—overnight in Chicago and Los Angeles. And deep apologies from the mayor, police chief as well, but concerns we have not, and are not, resolving the question of what happens to people of color with law enforcement, from all the apparent evidence on these multiple videos.
MURPHY: What you see on these videos happens every single night in communities all across this country. We raise our level of outrage when we see it firsthand, but we should be outraged that this is everyday life for people of color and communities of color all across this country. And we need to commit ourselves to the kind of national dialogue and reform that will be necessary in order to make clear we have zero tolerance for this kind of behavior, and we’re implementing the kind of policies that will prevent it from happening in the future.
Now, that being said, the proper means to address these grievances is through the political process. And so I’m upset and disappointed to see these episodes of violence erupt in Minnesota. And I hope that we will all be able to train our focus on the 2020 election as the primary mechanism by which we change this country and make sure that we have a chief executive who is going to command that these abuses stop, rather than inflame the passions that ultimately lead to these terrifying incidences.
MITCHELL: Senator Murphy, we’ve covered a lot of issues, but I know that our members are lined up wanting to ask their questions as well. So I’ll turn it over to my colleagues at CFR or bring in our questioners.
STAFF: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We will take our first question from Peter Galbraith.
Q: Thank you, Senator.
My question is more broadly about American leadership. In order to be a leader you, of course, have to have followers. In order to have followers, you have to go in a direction they want to go. That was true, for example, of U.S. diplomacy in the ’90s. But now we have a situation where we have a president who pulls out of the Iran agreement, Europeans not only don’t follow but they try to keep the agreement going. He pulls out of the Paris accord. Nobody else does. In fact, several other countries that hadn’t signed up do. So my question is, do you see that another administration can restore American leadership in the way it was, or do you think that the, you know, Europeans, perhaps France and Germany, will now be more permanently filling a void the that the U.S. has left?
MURPHY: Well, it’s obviously maybe the most important question, and an incredibly nuanced one. I do worry that some of the retreats of American leadership that we have seen under the Trump administration is unrecoverable. I think, for instance, at the WHO the steps that China will take to fill the vacuum that has been created by the long-term and now short-term acute withdrawal of U.S. presence will be hard to turn back. But I do believe that there is an opportunity for the United States to join common cause with the Europeans to be able to try to reengage in many of the projects that have been left un-worked-upon.
And you think about an issue like protecting Hong Kong. The only way by which you deliver a message to China that will have any impact or effect is for it to be done together with the United States and Europe. The only way by which you start to turn back the ability of Chinese technology to dominate international markets is for the United States and Europe to work together on 6G, or on advanced battery technology, or on AI. And so I think that there is an imperative for us to reengage, especially with our European partners. I think that the global recession that we are about to enter into is going to present some unique challenges. Europe, in fact, is going to have an even hard time to hold together given, I think, the very long and very tough recession that they are entering into.
And so I think that the job is going to be difficult for President Biden to reengage the world. But I also think that you will have an American public that will be more understanding than ever of American global leadership. Listen, President Trump, you know, he was speaking to a very willing audience when he presented his America first campaign, which was predicated on us turning our back on the world. Today, as we watch the ineffectiveness of a wall with Mexico, the ineffectiveness of a travel ban to protect us from coronavirus, I think the American public is going to want a president to step forward and explain how we can effectively reengage with the world to prevent anything like this, or any similar threat, from being able to crater our economy in the way that it has. So I think the next American president has the ability to have the American public by his side when he tries to repair some of the damage that’s been done internationally.
STAFF: We will take our next question from Valentina Barbacci.
Q: Yes. Thank you very much. I was—I should note, first of all, thank you very much for your work. I’m actually a voter in Connecticut, registered at least there, and often follow you on C-SPAN from my base here in London. So thank you for everything that you do.
I would be very curious, if it’s within the realm of the conversation today, to hear your thoughts that antibody testing—the role that antibody testing could or should play, you know, both at the state level and the federal level, and what sort of means you are proposing or are included in your proposal. I work for a particular antibody testing company here in London. And we have been trying to push forth various policy changes here as well. And I’d be very curious to hear your thoughts on the role it could play within the U.S., please.
MURPHY: So thank you for the question. I think it can play an incredibly important, but likely not dispositive role, in our plan to reopen the country. I was just on the phone with someone earlier today who was talking about his family’s willingness to send their children back to daycare. And he understood that he was never going to be able to get a 100 percent guarantee that his child wouldn’t be subject to potential infection, thus presenting it—an issue to himself and the rest of his family. But he thought that to the extent that a percentage of the childcare staff tested positive for antibodies, it would just give him enough confidence to send his children back into that setting.
And so while we know that you’re never going to, I think, effectively have a policy in which you limit those who can go back to work to only those that test positive for antibodies, it can, if you do enough of it, just raise the level of confidence for all workers to reenter spaces and, in this case, for parents to send their kids back to childcare centers or schools. The problem is, we just have a manufacturing capacity issue in this country. And the president has been reluctant, has in many cases outright refused, to stand up a national manufacturing program for the diagnostic and antibody testing capacity that we need.
Now, some of this is made in the United States. Some of it is made overseas. But our refusal to create a national plan to create as much of that capacity as we can is likely going to be our undoing. So we are hopeful to have in this next legislative package legislation that will require the president to use the Defense Production Act to produce more both diagnostic testing and antibody testing.
MITCHELL: Senator, if I just might follow up. There has been an issue raised with the rush to approve some seventy applications where a very high number—as many as half—of those that have been approved had a lot of false positives, false negatives. The question of accuracy still has to be identified properly. How do we—how do we resolve that?
MURPHY: Well, I mean, you resolve it by getting it right. And when you have a president that’s making wild claims, staking his reelection on wild claims regarding how fast you can produce a vaccine or treatments, the political pressure inside these agencies, like the FDA, to push out treatments, and tests, and vaccines before they are ready is real. And so this president is making the job of the regulators and the scientists harder by setting up timelines that simply aren’t realistic. It is one thing to have diagnostic tests that don’t work. The downside is significant. False positives or false negatives, which create incentives for behavior which are misaligned with public health needs. But
the bigger danger is a vaccine that gets pushed out onto the market that isn’t ready for primetime, that actually ends up doing harm inside populations. And while I think it’s probably not in the realm of possibility that we get a vaccine before the end of the Trump administration, I mean, you cannot forsake the possibility that if there is a promising vaccine that in the throes of the general election campaign this president wouldn’t try to put it out there in order to win political points before it is ready to go. And so I just think we have to continue to make clear, as policymakers, that we are willing to be patient in order to get these tests, and these treatments, and these vaccines right.
STAFF: We will take our next question from Mike Haltzel.
Q: Thank you. Senator, I’m Mike Haltzel from Johns Hopkins. Good to see you again.
And I want to ask a specific question about the Balkans, and area where over the last three—last three administrations American policy has been relatively successful, at least compared to other parts of the world. And I know you’re the preeminent Balkan expert in the Senate. And earlier twice in this interview you mentioned Rick Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany. As you know, he has been conducting as a mediator secret talks between the president of Serbia, Mr. Vučić, the president of Kosovo, Mr. Thaçi, about the possibility of a land swap. Essentially, changing borders to conform more with ethnic realities. A lot of people think that this would set off a chain reaction in Bosnia, in North Macedonia, and maybe even elsewhere in the Balkans. And also, some people think that the president is using this as a possibility of a so-called foreign policy victory before the election. I wonder if you could comment on it.
MURPHY: I can. You know, unfortunately these days, you know, qualifying as one of the preeminent experts in Congress on the Balkans is a pretty low bar. It used to be that it was part of your job description on the Foreign Relations Committee to be an expert in the Balkans. Not so today. But it does remain the part of the world where wars start. and as you mentioned, it is a part of the world in which major victories still can be achieved for peace. Rick Grenell was the wrong person to conduct these negotiations. As you know well, it is certainly possible to envision an agreement between Thaçi and Vučić, given the sort of serious instability within the Kosovar government. The question is whether Thaçi could deliver on the promises that he makes to Vučić with a government that he has waning influence with.
On the question of land swaps, which is this creative idea in which you would move some parts of land that are currently part of Kosovo with large Serbian populations into Serbia, with exchanges moving the other way of other parts of territory. I understand the slippery slope argument that if you do that in the case of Kosovo and Serbia that it will become more likely that other nations will demand the same. At the same time, you can make an argument that if there is a serious breakthrough between Kosovo and Serbia, that leads to Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo as an independent state, it might also unlock potential creative solutions to other lingering disputes in the region.
So I have never foreclosed the possibility of land swaps as, I think, dangerous as the proposition is, from being a part of an ultimate settlement, so long as that settlement actually leads to the recognition of Kosovo. What has been problematic is the dizzying U.S. position on land swaps. Both the Obama administration and the Trump administration have camps inside them that supported it and opposed it. It has never been very clear whether the United States is going to back a deal like that up. I think if it’s a good enough deal we should be open to it. I just don’t know that Rick Grenell is ever going to be able to put the pieces of that deal together.
STAFF: We’ll take our next question from Sarah Leah Whitson.
Q: Hi. Thanks for this presentation. Two related and quick questions for you, I hope.
One is that I understand the Senate is considering a new bill to force the Trump administration to reveal the full contents of its secret report on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which it, of course, failed to provide since the deadline in January of this year. And I wonder what the status of that is, particularly given new pending arms sales to Saudi Arabia, despite the government’s failure to comply with that congressional demand.
And the second is I’d like to hear your thoughts on the sanctions bill that Senators Cruz and Jeanne Shaheen proposed against Lebanon as a threat and a punishment for them to release U.S. citizen Amer Fakhoury, who of course has been implicated in very serious torture and abuse in Khiam Prison in Lebanon, and also the role of the United States in putting on a helicopter and helping an escape from justice from Lebanon, notwithstanding the fact that he was a fugitive from justice and subject to a travel ban in Lebanon at the time.
MURPHY: Well, quite frankly, I share the concerns of Senator Shaheen and Senator Cruz. And I have raised the issue of his imprisonment with Lebanese officials. I was—boy, I lose track of time—but I was in Lebanon I think last fall, maybe one of the last members of Congress to be there. I have not looked at their legislation. I think this is obviously a very tense and important moment for Lebanon, as Hezbollah takes more and more of the political infrastructure there, notwithstanding the protests on the street demanding that the people rather than political agents and outside actors be in charge of the country’s future. But I share their concerns, while I have not yet supported their legislation.
I don’t think there’s much hope of the Senate passing anything to force the administration’s hand on Jamal Khashoggi’s death. I’ve, you know, been to this rodeo before. We have tried to pass legislation through the Foreign Relations Committee. And when we get close to successfully building a bipartisan compromise to get tougher on Saudi policy, the hammer comes down from the Trump administration, and word gets sent to McConnell and Senator Risch to stop the proceedings. Again, we’ve got to get to the bottom of why this administration is so protective of Saudi interests rather than American interests, and the interests of the family of Jamal Khashoggi. But I think until we have a new administration, there is no way that we are going to effectively get to the bottom of what we know about the story of Khashoggi’s murder.
And I think, as you noted, there’s another arms sale reportedly moving its way through the works. I don’t think that the disposition of Congress will be any different on this arms sale. In fact, the vote might be worse given the fact that we, you know, now know that the terrorist attack on the military base in Pensacola was in fact coordinated with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and that there were upwards of twelve to sixteen Saudi cadets who were trading in extremist and anti-American information while they were embedded with the U.S. military. I think we have more questions rather than less about the nature of our alliance with the Saudis now after the disclosure of this Pensacola report. And there is likely to be more, not less, opposition from Congress to another arms sale.
STAFF: We will take our next question from Eric Polowsky (ph).
Q: Hello, Senator. Nice to see you again.
I wanted to raise a recent story in MIT Technology Review which reported on a Carnegie Mellon study that suggested about 45 to 60 percent of Twitter accounts discussing COVID-19 are bots. According to the study, many of those accounts were crated in February and have been spreading/amplifying misinformation, including false medical advice, conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus, and push to end stay-at-home orders and reopen America. Obviously, influence campaigns aimed at shaping or driving an outcome of an election are deeply problematic. Influence campaigns that are aimed at misinforming the American public about a public-health threat are deadly. What do you think the U.S. government is doing to respond to this problem?
MITCHELL: If I may, Senator, just today I saw that the Department of Homeland Security from New Jersey had warned of foreign bots on this very issue.
MURPHY: Yeah. Well, listen, I think that, you know, there is right now a limited amount that the administration is willing to do, given that, as I mentioned earlier, my belief is that they are expecting and rooting for foreign entities to use social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook in order to advance the reelection prospects of this president. And so while the, you know, president may be sort of mounting a public relations campaign this week against Twitter because they are starting to fact-check his wildly dangerous and false claims that he makes on that platform, in general this administration is not interested in fighting this battle more broadly.
We have tried to stand up new capabilities here. We know that we have a battle to fight here in the United States, and there’s plenty of pieces of legislation sponsored by Senators Warner and Senator Klobuchar to create more capacity to stop this propaganda from being proffered on social media platforms. But we also have to fight it internationally, as well. And the Center for Global Engagement, which is the new department at State that tracks this information and reports on it, has been, I think, actually pretty effective at identifying what these bot farms are doing specifically to seed information on coronavirus, and much of what they’re doing internationally they’re doing here in the United States. So we actually have a pretty capable center that, quite frankly, was established by myself and Senator Rob Portman that’s doing a lot of that good work. We’ve had to fight the Trump administration to fund it, but we have increasing capability to track and report on it.
The difficulty is we have varying levels of interest from the companies themselves to take that content down. Twitter, I think, is much more serious about taking that content down. As you know, Facebook has no interest in taking that content down, and you know, I think will, you know, go down as one of the sort of most destructive actors in the American information ecosystem given their enthusiasm to allow for this information to continue to be trafficked on their platforms.
Q: Thank you.
STAFF: We will take our next question from Edward Cox. Mr. Cox, please click the “unmute now” button.
Q: Here we go. Can you hear me?
Q: Oh, good. Senator, thank you for your presentation.
In the presentation at the start, you made a statement that Mr. Ratcliffe was brought onboard to connect foreign actors to benefit the president, then Andrea asked you if you had any evidence of that and you said no, you have no evidence.
I’d like you to clear up another statement you made; that is, that the president—you suggested that the president is financially in thrall to Saudi Arabia. That’s a very serious charge. Do you have any evidence to support that, Senator?
MURPHY: Well, certainly go—willing to go back and look at the record. I think what I said is that the president is looking to install individuals at the helm of U.S. national security agencies who will look the other way when foreign actors attempt to interfere in the upcoming election. And listen, I just take the president at his word. I mean, I understand that sometimes we don’t think that what the president says is U.S. policy; that it’s just him spouting off. But we should believe him when he says that if a foreign actor came to him with damaging information about a rival, that he would listen to it and that he would not report that to the authorities who could investigate the nature of those claims. We, of course, know that the president asked for Russia to interfere in the 2016 election, and to this day has expressed no contrition for doing so. And so what I believe is that he—what I believe to be true is that he is putting political actors in positions that used to be occupied by policy professionals in order to make it easier for foreign actors to be able to interfere in the upcoming election.
With respect to the president’s potential financial connections to Saudi Arabia, what I said is that it is a possibility that the IG had information regarding the nature of the president’s financial connections to Saudi Arabia. We know for a fact that there is a financial connection. The president’s family has talked openly about how much Saudi money is involved in their properties, either those who purchase stakes in their properties or who rent from Trump properties. We also know that the president was pursuing development deals in Saudi Arabia prior to his election. And you know, we’ve all been scratching our heads as to, you know, why the president went first to Saudi Arabia. Why did the president look the other way when a(n) American resident was brutally butchered? So these are all very legitimate questions based upon information that is known to the public about the president’s connections to that country. And just knowing who he is, I think, you know, what matters most to him is his financial success and the ability of his empire to prosper once he leaves office. I think he likely believes that people in Saudi Arabia—that Saudi money has a lot to do with his future financial success as it may have to do with his present financial success as well.
STAFF: We will take our next question from Manik Mehta. Your line is now live.
MURPHY: Maybe not.
Since we have some technical difficulties, we will move on and take our next question from Jeffrey Laurenti.
Q: Jeff Laurenti over in New Jersey, actually.
The emergency fiscal measures that most countries are taking to respond to the COVID-19 crisis is presumably going to be putting pressure on defense spending in years coming forward. The Trump administration has been busy dismantling nuclear arms architecture treaty by treaty, pact by pact. Peter Galbraith has referred to some of them. What are the prospects in the remaining seven months of this administration for Congress to keep Open Skies open, to ensure that New START can stay started come February? And what are the prospects for new, wider-ranging constraints on arsenals in a potential Biden administration? Does the conservative fear of deficits translate to some constraints on their side on arms spending?
MURPHY: Well, you know, right, conservatives will ramp up their concerns about deficits, concerns that were nowhere to be found for much of the last three-and-a-half years, if Vice President Biden is successfully elected. They generally set aside those concerns when it comes to defense spending. But as you referenced, the price tag for nuclear modernization is breathtaking, and our inability to stay in existing nuclear agreements and build upon them threatens to get us into a new nuclear arms race that will add on billions of dollars in cost to the existing budget simply to revamp what exists today. And what I mean by that—and I think you know—is that what Russia in particular and the Chinese are looking towards is a future in which there are more smaller tactical nuclear weapons available for use in regional conflicts, and the only way to constrain that is through building upon the existing nuclear proliferation treaty architecture.
Your question is, can we sort of maintain our ability to stay in these agreements or to renew New START come the next administration? I think there is growing interest amongst Republicans, at least a subset of Republicans in the Senate, to do just that. And so one of the projects I think we need to engage in is trying to see if we can—you know, now that we are only, as you said, six or seven months away, be able to leverage that Republican Senate cabal into convincing the administration to at least not take the cataclysmic steps that would tie the hands of a future administration.
And while, you know, we all share the administration’s goal to try to write the rules of the road in the future regarding nuclear proliferation in a way that involves the Chinese, it is still true for the time being that the two games in town that matter are those in Washington and in Moscow. And so I just think it’s an excuse to do nothing to say that we are not going to renew existing agreements unless the Chinese are a party to them. We’ve got to get them in the game, but not at the cost of losing the agreements that we have today.
STAFF: We will take our last question from Matthew Ferraro.
Q: Oh, I made it. Hello. Thank you both. Thank you, Senator. My name is Matt Ferraro. I was an intel officer. Now I’m a lawyer in private practice, you know.
In any event, my question is this. So one thing I think we’ve learned from the Trump administration is that many of the constraints on the presidency that we thought existed were more the fact of norms rather than laws. And so my question to you is, going forward, what are (practical ?) legal changes that you could implement that would rein in future presidents? Would it be, you know, a legal change to make it harder to fire IGs, a stronger FOIA law, a different constitution of the Department of Justice? Just specific reforms that you think we can make going forward. Thank you.
MURPHY: Yeah, I think it’s a great question to end on, and I—and I maybe don’t, you know, have the specific answers that you’re looking for. But it is important to remember that, you know, our democracy is a piece of paper, and it is only as good as our commitment to recognize and enforce the promises that are made to the American people in our founding documents. Democracies don’t tend to survive. This one has hung around longer than almost any other, but the history of democracies is that they ultimately atrophy. And that’s understandable. I mean, just think about the way in which you organize the rest of your life. There aren’t many things that are important to you that are run by democratic vote, right? Your workplace doesn’t run by democratic vote. Your kid’s spots team doesn’t run by democratic vote. Most of your church communities have a hierarchical structure upon them.
We actually do believe in individuals or small groups of individuals having the authority to run large enterprises. We just don’t when it comes to the federal government. We think that we should all be in charge. And so you do have to have creative structures in place to guarantee that this thing hangs around.
So I think there’s limited utility in creating more legal infrastructure to protect democracy because the day when we give up on it and we stop caring about protecting it, there’s, you know, no law that can’t be easily violated in small part to begin with and in large part in the long run. But certainly we should, you know, start to think about creative structures.
One of the things we’ve recognized under the Trump administration is how hard it is to contest constitutional claims in court. There’s no doubt that the president is violating the Emoluments Clause. There is no doubt that he’s violating the Emoluments Clause by continuing to make money through his vast real estate empire in part by foreigners and foreign governments spending money through it. We can’t get that claim into court largely because of standing issues. We have a hard time contesting claims about emergency powers due to those same standing issues.
And so you can pass statues that create fast-track ability for members of Congress to be able to contest violations of either statute or the Constitution through the court system. Now, the courts don’t love that because they would rather these sort of semi-political questions be solved through political means like elections. But that is a remedy that is available to us, create more judicial remedies for many of these questions about whether the president is violating statute or Constitution as it pertains to democratic norms.
Backing up from it, though, elections really are your ultimate protection. And I’ve said this to my constituents at every single town hall, that if you really care about protecting democracy then you have to go out and work your tail off to win elections to put in place candidates who are going to protect democracy, because ultimately that is the greatest protection that we have so long as our elections are truly free and fair. And as we’ve talked about over the course of this call, we still have some work ahead of us between now and 2020 to make sure that that’s the case as well.
MITCHELL: Well, with that, we have to conclude our meeting. Our big thanks to Senator Murphy and his staff. Thanks to CFR for letting me participate in this. Thanks to all of the members. And the audio and transcript will be posted on the CFR website later today. And I hope you can all join us for CFR’s next virtual meeting, which will be on “The Future of Work After COVID-19,” and that will be tomorrow at 11:00 Eastern time. And thanks very much to all of you.
MURPHY: Thanks, Andrea.
MITCHELL: You bet.