Glasser: This is Susan Glasser and welcome back to The Global POLITICO. I am so delighted that our guest this week is Senator Chris Murphy. We’ve been wanting to do this, I think, ever since we launched The Global POLITICO because there aren’t that many really savvy politics politicos who also love to sit down and talk foreign policy and Senator Murphy is one of the rare people, I think, who is both these days on Capitol Hill. So thank you, Senator Murphy, for—
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Murphy: I’m glad to be on that list.
Glasser: [LAUGHS] And we were just talking about it. You’re not a podcast novice either so you know the drill, which is great. There’s so much to talk about. It’s hard to even to know where to start but I can’t resist being a little bit in the headlines and a little bit timely here. Yesterday, you had Hillary Clinton coming out and talking pretty extensively about why she thought she lost. Lots of second-guessing about her comments and were they sufficiently contrite? Were they sufficiently apologetic? Is she right to blame Jim Comey? Is she right to blame the Russian hacking of 2016? I’m curious about your thoughts. I mean, did the Comey letter change the election?
Murphy: I love this idea that there has to be one reason why someone wins or loses and to the extent that there, you know, has been criticism of her performance, it largely seems to come from folks who think that there can only be one or two or maybe three explanations. Anytime somebody loses a presidential election, there are lots of explanations… So she was not the right candidate for the moment. Obviously, in retrospect, we know that people were in a fairly revolutionary mood and having someone that was so clearly identified with the Democratic and Washington establishment was just not scratching the electorate’s itch. She didn’t have a coherent economic plan in a way that gave people ideas that were easy to grab on to, right?
She had really good ideas but she didn’t have very memorable ideas in the way that Donald Trump did, no matter how reckless his ideas were. You remembered them, right? Building a wall or going into a trade war with China. So that mattered, but so did the Comey letter. So did the fact that the press was fascinated by an email story that was just not the scandal that the media wanted it to be. She maybe didn’t handle it great but, you know, it’s still a mystery to me as to why Comey disclosed her investigation and not Trump’s investigation. So all of it contributed to her loss in that election, remembering that she only lost the electoral vote and not the popular vote. So yes, I think it’s all relevant and I don’t think anybody is going to be able to tell you which part was 20 percent and which part was 17 percent but she’s right to blame it on other factors and she’s right to also acknowledge that she was part of it as well.
Glasser: So let’s talk about Russia. There’s still an unfolding FBI investigation but just as a matter of politics, what’s your view of how damaging or not the Russia-inspired WikiLeaks dump was in terms of the outcome of the election. Did it matter?
Murphy: Oh, I think it mattered and, you know, I can’t tell you whether it was dispositive or not but it was highly coordinated, the idea that the Podesta leak comes out within hours of the Access Hollywood tapes being released is not a coincidence, right? There were hundreds of Russian operatives sitting in a room or a series of rooms inventing fake news that tried to twist people’s opinions of Clinton and Trump as candidates.
So, you know, whether or not it tipped the difference, I don’t know that we can say that but it certainly was a very big deal and we know that the Russians are trying to do similar things right now in European elections and to the extent that our president continues on alternate days to deny that the Russians were involved in the U.S. election, I think gives license to Putin to try it in other countries. So I think it was serious. Perhaps determinative, but our lack of a coherent response to it is going to assure that it will continue to happen.
Glasser: Well, that’s right. You mentioned Trump and his continued obsession both with the outcome of the election and also denial about the Russian involvement in it. You know, he just tweeted again the other day that James Comey was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton because somehow, I guess, his argument was a distraction from the critique of her campaign that would have been otherwise. And he said, “Maybe I ran the best campaign ever.” Is there any credence to that?
Do you think that Donald Trump did a genius job of tapping into American political sentiment? I guess this would be his argument, right? And that not just Hillary Clinton but Democrats misread the electorate and he was a genius?
Murphy: I don’t know that I’d go that far. No, but those others—there’s clearly a storyline here, which is about an ability by the Trump campaign and Trump himself to tap into just an absolute frustration with the economic status quo and with the way in which Washington talked, right? He conceived of himself as the anti-PC candidate, right? And he went to such lengths to do everything differently. And whether it was intentional or not, it translated and we all laughed at him coming down the escalator to announce his candidacy.
But whether or not it was meant to come off this way or not, it started what was a clear pattern of doing everything in a way that was unexpected for a major political candidate, and people liked that because they hated what they were seeing from the run-of-the-mill conventional candidates. Whether there’s genius there or not, he tapped into something that I don’t think Democrats ever saw.
So let’s talk about the Democrats looking forward. I think the other thing that caught people’s attention was—I was going to say, Secretary Clinton, Senator Clinton, what do you say now? Former nominee Clinton said she was part of “the resistance” now too. You have been a key member of the resistance, whatever that term means to you up here on Capitol Hill, and I’ve been struck, as have many other people, that you have found a way and a language and a message for responding to this unusual moment in politics that seems to be really connecting with people. You’ve been much more out front than a lot of your colleagues.
And when I told one of our mutual acquaintances that I was going to interview you today—he wrote back and he said, “Well, to my mind, Murphy is the best Democrat anecdote to DJT on Twitter.” And, you know, on the one hand, I suppose that’s not the proudest item on your resume, you know, “excellent tweeter.”
Murphy: Right. Right.
Glasser: But on the other hand, it is true that I have noticed it and so have others. Tell me how you define “the resistance” and what you’ve learned from your days trolling Donald Trump on Twitter.
Murphy: Well, I mean, first of all, it’s an uncomfortable position to be in. I thought I was just getting good at the end of last year in figuring out how to work across the aisle and get some big things done. I spent two years writing a big bipartisan reform for our nation’s mental health laws. I’ve been doing good stuff with John McCain on U.S.-Ukraine policy and now, all of a sudden, I’m part of the resistance movement. All of a sudden, I’m spending the vast majority of my time just fighting an agenda I disagree with and, a), I hope that that changes at some point. I hope we get back at some point to being able to do some bipartisan work. But b), I accept that right now that’s the most important thing that I can do.
Whether you like it or not, Twitter is an incredibly important medium that has been made more important by this president. He dominates news cycles by the things that he says on Twitter and millions of Americans follow him and see what he tweets through conventional media. And so it just stands to reason that given that he’s chosen to communicate that way, we have to choose to communicate that way. He has dominated the medium in part because he’s authentic. He says dumb stuff all the time but people by and large know that it’s his real voice. I think to the extent that I’ve been effective in breaking through is because it’s my real voice, right?
The tweets that I send out are not written by somebody else. They’re not vetted through my communications staff. They are just me typing out legitimate, real, emotional frustration with what this president is doing and saying and I think as a general matter, more Democrats should do that. More Democrats should be speaking without vetting their statements through their staff because it will feel realer. You’ll make mistakes occasionally but I think these days, clearly, people are willing to grant you some mistakes as long as they actually feel like they’re seeing and hearing you.
Glasser: Well, it’s interesting. So I was just earlier today on a radio show actually, to prove your point, talking about human rights and Trump and, you know, what is up with his seeming affinity for dictators and his invitation to Duterte from the Philippines to come to the White House, his praise of Turkey’s leader, President Erdoğan, etc., etc. And sure enough, like about, a few minutes in, the host says, “Well, for example, Senator Chris Murphy just tweeted the other day, ‘We are watching in real time as the American human rights bully pulpit disintegrates into ash.’ That was a tweet that you made the other day when you heard the Duterte thing.
Glasser: So you just popped that off on your phone or—
Murphy: Yes, yes. I was reading an article about what he was saying about Duterte, trying to figure out a very clear way to communicate the broader implications for this, that the more sort of love he showers on people like Duterte and el-Sisi and Erdoğan, the greater the message that is sent to other would-be autocrats, other leaders that are thinking about getting on that slippery slope from democracy into something that looks less like democracy, that it’s okay, or at the very least, you’re not going to have to worry about any condemnation from the United States as you used to.
And yes, there is, I guess, some science to figuring out a way to say that in 140 characters that breaks through, but yes, that was just me.
Glasser: You had another one. “Trumpcare is an intellectual and moral dumpster fire.” My guess is that that was one of your more noticed and retweeted comments.
Murphy: Yes, I mean, listen, there’s a way that real people talk. There’s also a way that younger people talk and acknowledging that and not being afraid to use what to many people are silly terms, like “dumpster fire,” is a way for people that maybe aren’t necessarily always picking up on political speech to pick up on it because you’re talking in a way that they and their friends communicate. So, there is an urgency to these fights, to trying to turn around the way in which we are failing to engage on human rights questions, the quick movement on this disastrous health care reform bill.
And so you’ve got to use strong rhetoric to engage people and yes, my reach is—I mean, it’s dramatically expanded. It’s the number of people who follow me and the number of people who sign up for our emails. I think that’s, again, it’s because it’s a real voice showing real frustration.
Glasser: One thing that you’ve done in addition to the strong language, you know, I think caused me to sit back and consider a little bit—how far do you want to stretch this medium? You’re probably best known for immediately in the aftermath of Trump’s executive order, tweeting a picture of a [dead] Syrian child.
Glasser: That was a very graphic picture and it was a stark commentary on the moment. You did a version of that again just recently when Trump had his speech to the NRA and you said, “Don’t listen to this speech. Look at this instead.” And you tweeted out photographs of victims of gun violence, many of them children. You’re a dad of young kids. Using kids like this as part of your resistance to Trump—have you gotten much feedback on that? It’s obviously very powerful and very visceral the fact that I remember it. I don’t need to look it up.
Murphy: Yes, and you certainly get feedback when you do things like that but it’s largely from people that disagree with your point of view because they know what you’re doing is effective and, you know, there are some issues in which words don’t convey the true seriousness of the issue, right? When you’re talking about denying the chance for children to come to the United States who are fleeing terror and torture, I don’t know how to communicate that in words alone, right? And, I think Trump himself acknowledges that, right? He told the world that he sent Tomahawk missiles into Syria because of the images that he watched on TV with respect to the chemical attacks.
It’s easy to have an intellectual conversation about gun violence but let’s really talk about what happened to those kids’ bodies, right? The reason why I don’t think that assault weapons should be legal is because a bullet coming out of an assault weapon travels at a speed three times that of coming out of a handgun and I hope no one ever has to look at what happens to a 6-year-old’s body when that bullet essentially turns their bones into dust, which does not happen when a handgun bullet comes through your body. So yes, I do want people to be psychologically and emotionally challenged by these images because there are—the seriousness of the threats that are posed to this country by the Trump administration, I think, demand us to do something more than just look at words on a page.
Glasser: So do you—you are in the camp of the resistance that believes that there are potentially existential threats and challenges coming out of the Trump White House?
Murphy: I do. I think I feel a little bit more confident that our system can hold today than I might have thought in the first few weeks. You know, we’ve had legal challenges that have been met by the courts with respect to the Muslim ban. The administration did not choose to ignore the courts.
So the checks and balances have held fairly well in the first 100 days. The exception to that I would argue is military operations overseas but I think as an existential —
Glasser: You mean where he’s free to do what he wants?
Murphy: Where he’s free to do what he wants because of the complete abdication of the congressional role in foreign affairs. But on domestic policy, I’m maybe a little bit less concerned about the existential threat today than I was at the beginning because I feel like some of the checks here are holding.
Glasser: Right, but on foreign policy, let’s talk about that. How would you characterize what you see from Trump? As an observer, it’s amazing to see the wild oscillations, not just of the president himself. In some ways, those are less surprising to me than the wild oscillations in the sort of pundit class in saying, “He’s normal. No, he’s terrible.” What’s your own view about what is the nature of the challenge from Trump you’re facing here?
Murphy: Well, it’s foreign policy by improvisation. It’s foreign policy by amateurs. Foreign policy is not skateboarding. You can’t pick it up in a handful of days, and it’s just absolutely stunning to me that he has no one in his inner circle who has any diplomatic experience. Now, he’s got a couple of generals that seem smart, seem like they have a reasonable head on their shoulders but military policy is not foreign policy and there are lots of places in the world where the United States does not have a military presence, which demands a different set of tools in order to try to protect our interests. So I think this is unbelievably confusing for the world to follow.
I think you are seeing a wholesale walk away from the United States happening because no one believes that they can rely on us, no one believes that there’s any consistency to our policy. And ultimately, to the extent that we are doing new things, it is all through the military without a real understanding of the consequences of 60 Tomahawk missiles [striking Syria] without a broader Syria policy. A couple hundred, if not 1,000 more troops inside parts of Syria that are largely ungovernable. And that’s really what keeps me up at night; the transfer of foreign policy over to the military combined with zero consistency about our strategy, our values, or the norms that we’re willing to uphold.
Glasser: So what is a Democratic foreign policy? You’ve described the tools and tactics of the resistance but here in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—I mean, let’s be honest, right? Whether it was a Democratic-controlled Congress or a Republican, hasn’t played a huge role in actually setting strategy or policy in a long time. What is the Democratic vision? After Obama, it’s a little murky.
Murphy: Well, whether you call it a Democratic foreign policy or a progressive foreign policy, I argue that it’s an America that is forward deployed in the world with an acknowledgment that the blunt force of military power cannot adequately protect us given the fact that the threats posed to us today are largely not conventional military threats. And so a progressive foreign policy is all about giving the president a set of non-military tools to protect—adequately protect America. That doesn’t mean that you transfer funds from the military over to state and USAID.
But you understand that unless you are adequately resourced to help make ungovernable spaces in the world more governable, right? And that’s economic development aid to try to bring economic and governance stability to places. Unless you invest in true energy independence for countries that sit on Russia’s periphery that want to get off Russia’s oil, unless you invest in real anti-propaganda efforts to push back against the Russians or the extremist groups, unless you do real anti-corruption work to recognize that corruption breeds instability, which breeds extremism, then you’re not protecting America. So a real progressive foreign policy is about a big investment in non-military tools, recognizing that the threats posed to America today are really not military in nature like they may have been 30 or 50 years ago.
I think there are some other elements of a progressive foreign policy that doesn’t fit into that paradigm. Things like requiring that all military operations overseas be congressionally authorized, recognizing that this slow transfer of military operational authority from the Department of Defense to the CIA is not smart policy requiring sunlight on foreign policy and our military policy. Those are also components of that vision as well.
Glasser: So it’s interesting to hear you talk. I mean, on some level, right, nothing that you said about your philosophy of the case would be all that different from what a young Senator Barack Obama might have said and yet he had a Democratic administration in the White House for two terms, for eight whole years, and they arguably, really seemed to struggle when it came to turning a philosophy that doesn’t sound all that different from yours into actual policy, right? The militarization of American foreign policy has proceeded under Democratic and Republican presidents.
Glasser: Number one. Number two, practical, real-world debates. Syria tied up Obama and his White House in knots for the whole six years. You were here. You were on the Foreign Relations Committee then. I mean, did the Democrats have it figured out then? Their record doesn’t look very good when you look at the carnage there.
Murphy: So I think you’re exactly right and I have an answer, which is that every—I think every administration, Republican or Democrat, is doomed to fail internationally unless they are given the toolkit to succeed. And so you are right, President Obama struggled with turning his doctrine into reality because he never had the assets at the State Department to do the things that he needed to do, right? He never had the ability to sit down with countries that were sort of on the precipice of falling apart and do massive economic development deals with them in exchange for democratic and governance reforms. He never had real energy assistance money to go into a Moldova or a Ukraine ahead of time and say, “Hey, listen. I will actually put money into developing your ability to be independent of Russian energy.”
He never had those tools and so he used the only tool he had, which was the military. Military spending doubled from 2003 to 2011, while State Department financing essentially remained flat with inflation. So, I think that that’s my point, is that until you give a Democratic president some non-military tools, you always rely on the military. In Syria, listen, I just think he abandoned his doctrine, right? I think he knew that there was not a military solution but he got convinced to sort of put in little dribs and drabs of military support so that he could say he had a plan but he ended up making the situation worse because he put in just enough military support to keep the resistance, the rebels, going, but never enough for them to win, and our policy in Syria under Obama essentially exacerbated that civil war rather than making it better.
Glasser: And what did you make of all the cheering — and across the aisle — for President Trump when he launched his missile strike? Now, since then, when it’s become clear there wasn’t a lot of follow on, I think opinions have changed. But clearly, he had broad support for that action, from many Democrats who had been very frustrated with Obama.
Murphy: Yes, I was not amongst those. I was among the few that opposed the strike and yes, I think it is still emblematic of even my party’s inability to understand foreign policy outside of the military realm. To me, sending 60 Tomahawk missiles into a country side-by-side with a policy of locking those same kids you were trying to protect in Syria because you refuse a), to let refugees into the United States, and b), fund the refugee resettlement programs that allowed them to get into other countries is indefensible and so it’s a mystery to me why so many of my colleagues were willing to support that Tomahawk missile strike given that it did absolutely nothing to change the reality of the battle space.
Glasser: When you look at how the leaders around the region have cheered for President Trump because of a combination of really being disillusioned with Obama or feeling that America didn’t do enough, in some cases, to step into the unraveling and dysfunction that we’ve seen in the region. Of course, many of the Gulf Arabs, the Sunnis have been really, in particular, upset by President Obama’s Iran deal in the sense that the U.S. had shifted the balance of power in the region, basically, by favoring one side. What is your view? I mean, a lot of people—a lot of Americans, right? Your constituents in both parties are probably saying, “And that’s exactly why we don’t want to have anything to do with it.” That, however, is not really a luxury as most people in the foreign policy establishment have seen it over the last few decades.
You’re here trying to be both a politician and also somebody who is engaged in foreign policy. Do we just throw up our hands and get out? Aren’t both Obama and Trump recognizing something that exists within the American public?
Murphy: Well, I mean, boy, when it comes to U.S. military intervention in the region, I don’t know that my position is to throw up our hands and get out but it’s not too far away from that. I mean, I guess what I’ve learned, having been involved in foreign policy in Washington for a short period of time is that it’s not just what Eisenhower talked about. It’s not just the defense industrial complex here that always has a bent towards intervention. It’s the foreign policy establishment, right?
There’s a lot of people in this town who get paid a lot of money to come up with American solutions for problems very far away. And it’s easy to invent them, right? I mean, I could sit down and come up with a plan in which U.S. intervention ultimately gets every sect and faction in Syria to get along but it’s all a fantasy. And I think we’ve been involved in a lot of unintentional fantasy in the Middle East by coming up with ways in which America can solve problems. It ultimately would have to be decided by local actors.
I think we’ve made this enormous mistake in doubling down in our alliance with the Saudis. I do not understand how people can look at the rapid spread of extremism all across the globe and not understand that it is—that it isn’t coincidental to the concurrent rapid spread of a very conservative strain of Islam that is paid for out of Saudi Arabia. If it really is Sunni extremism that is the most important threat to the United States, then Saudi Arabia bears responsibility for the spread of that perversion of Islam and yet, we are, you know, in the middle with the Trump Administration of essentially solidifying an alliance that on a lot of days, does not accrue to our benefit.
Glasser: And why do you think the president is doing that? I mean, he does seem to have an affinity for sort of strongmen leaders in authoritarian governments, almost regardless of ideology, right? It’s not just the Saudis. Is it a personal preference, do you think, of Trump’s for strongmen or is it some more ideological rationale?
Murphy: Well, it can’t just be strongmen because there’s a strongman in Tehran as well, right? So there’s got to be something else going on here. Listen, I think when it comes to Saudi Arabia, I doubt that the president has a lot of nuanced thoughts about how America orients itself within the broader proxy war in the Middle East. I think he is probably largely influenced by a neoconservative crowd, a foreign policy establishment crowd that is slowly winning the day in and around the White House, and that crowd has always wanted to be friends with the Saudis.
I don’t think he’s ever really understood the threat that the Saudi spread of Wahhabi money presents to the United States. And that’s kind of left over from a Bush-era friendship with the Saud family, left over from a time in which we really were dependent on Saudi oil in order to run our country that just has not abated. It’s also—it also has something to do with the amount of Saudi Arabian money that’s in Washington that helps to fund many of the activities of thinkers in this town. So yes, I don’t know that it’s in Trump’s head. It’s probably in the people’s heads that surround him.
Glasser: So let’s talk about Russia. That’s the other issue that’s been obviously on the agenda. There’s the Russiagate investigation but then the broader questions surrounding what should the U.S. do when it comes to Putin’s kind of revisionism and his desire to expand again beyond the borders of post-Soviet Russia. You and I were on one of those Washington establishment-type things, this Carnegie study group. What did you learn from that and what is your view about where we should go with Russia now? Several presidents have tried and failed to come up with a consistent way and have ended up zigging and zagging.
Murphy: Yes, I don’t mean to be a broken record, but I come back to my original point in talking about what a progressive foreign policy should be. We need to understand what’s happening in Ukraine today. I don’t believe that Putin has any intention to ever militarily own Ukraine. He is not marching his Army or his proxy Army into Kiev across the plains of Ukraine. His desire is to create enough political instability in that country so that eventually, the Ukrainians say to themselves, “You know what? This isn’t worth it, resistance. We should just elect somebody, put somebody in charge who is going to cut a deal with Russia and get them out of our hair.” And we are totally unequipped to provide the prophylactic against that ultimate political outcome in Kiev.
Why? Because we really won’t give direct economic aid to the Ukrainians. All we are willing to give them is loans. We give them dribs and drabs of anti-corruption money that fights the money that comes in from Russia to try to corrupt people in and around the administration. And again, back to energy. We can kind of give them advice on how to design reverse flows into Ukraine from other places but they are still, by and large, relying on Russian gas because we have no means to actually help them get off it. And I would argue that same problem exists in Georgia and Moldova and the Baltics. We can give them a brigade of U.S. troops but we really can’t give them any other help to create true energy, political, and economic stability so that they are immune to these asymmetrical efforts of the Russians to try to create a sphere of influence.
Russia’s not marching an army across the border of NATO but they are going to try to win friends and push away enemies. We don’t have the resources to meet that right now.
Glasser: Okay, so what do you do? You’re sitting in the chair instead of President Trump or President Obama. Would you have imposed the sanctions that we have? Would you have even tougher sanctions? Do they work? Would you have sent lethal force weapons into the Ukrainian military?
Murphy: I eventually came around to support giving weapons to the Ukrainian military. The line was moving pretty quick for a period of time and I came, after opposing it for a while, to support the idea of giving some lethal weaponry to the Ukrainian Army but I don’t believe that that ultimately is dispositive. Let me give you an example of a conversation we should be having. We have something in the budget every year for the last three or four years called the “European Reassurance Initiative.” So the European Reassurance Initiative—
Glasser: Great title, by the way.
Murphy: Great title, right? So the European Reassurance Initiative, ERI, is all about military assets. U.S. military assets that are being positioned in the Baltics, in Poland to just sort of signal to the Russians that if they ever think about moving across the border, we’re going to nab them. I’m supportive of it but that’s not the game the Russians are playing. Shouldn’t we be having a conversation that if we’re going to spend $3 billion on a European Reassurance Initiative, is it better spent on a bunch of U.S. brigades that are probably never going to actually fight the Russians? Or would it be better spent on actual energy independence projects that target a handful of countries and put them on a plan, such that five years from now, they don’t have to rely on one ounce of Russian gas or oil to power their economy? That, to me, would seem like a better investment in European reassurance and security.
But we don’t have that conversation because the only way that we perceive American power to be projected is through military means. So the European Reassurance Initiative is all about the military. If I’m president, I’m having a conversation about different ways to spend emergency money outside of military reassurance.
Glasser: Right, however, if you mention that to our allies—and I was just in Europe last week and actually, the headlines were dominated by—those troops have now just started flowing in that were agreed upon last year.
Murphy: They love them.
Glasser: The Americans are in Poland and the big news was that the Germans are in the Baltic states for the first time since World War II and this is a really big deal. If you were president and you said what you’ve just said to me, our allies would flip out.
Murphy: Well, again, we’ve sort of set the conditions here, right? When we designed the European Reassurance Initiative. The Europeans didn’t so, you know, had we at the outset sat down with the Europeans and said, “Listen, here’s what we’re going to design. We’re going to do a billion dollars in military support for you and we’re going to fly the American flag in a few additional places but we’re going to spend $2 billion on energy independence. Or we’re going to spend $2 billion setting up a Russian language media service available to all of the countries on the periphery that tells the real story about what’s happening, not the story that comes through in Russian programming.” I think they would have followed us. It’s just that we constructed a reassurance initiative that was only translated through a military lens.
Glasser: Right, that everybody is operating within these structures. So speaking of which, we’re up here on Capitol Hill. We’re in the Hart Senate Office Building. Let’s talk just for a second about what is it like just for these hundred members of the Senate experiencing this Trump revolution, whatever it is. Maybe there’s not as much bipartisan interaction as there used to be but many of your colleagues, especially on Foreign Relations, their heads must be exploding, right? I mean, these people have been against Putin for quite a long time. These folks are free traders, almost all of them. Like, what’s going on with them? How do you feel like the institution and the senators are responding to this disruption?
Murphy: Well, I would argue that my Republican colleagues are not responding well in the sense that they are all willing to criticize Trump’s foreign policy behind closed doors. Some of them are willing to criticize it in public but they have been unwilling thus far to vote in a manner that would disrupt it. So, in my mind, Tillerson was selected to deconstruct the State Department. He was selected to try to create this detente with Russia, which was pretty immediately apparent was not available. And yet, every Republican voted for Tillerson. Despite their protests, they ended up giving him their votes.
Glasser: So you’re not a believer, just to be clear, that Senators Graham and McCain are leading a principled and risky, even courageous opposition to Trump on foreign policy matters?
Murphy: I think it has not translated into real policy change yet. Now, the exception to that is the budget that we’ve just passed, which did not include the massive cuts that Trump wanted, but it did give him—it does give him, as we speak, $12 billion more to spend on the military and it includes a $600 million cut to the State Department. So it’s sort of a skinny version of Trump’s foreign policy ask, but it is essentially the platform that he posed to the Congress with respect to foreign policy budgeting. Massive new amounts of money for the military and less money for the State Department. We didn’t give him everything he wanted but we didn’t stand his proposal on its head.
Glasser: And what was the conversation like, sort of in the back rooms and closed doors with those colleagues? Did you feel like your Republican colleagues are uncomfortable with this but they have no choice but to go along? Is it they don’t care that much?
Murphy: I think some people may think that we have sort of more honest, open conversations than we do behind closed doors. So even my good Republicans friends are not often willing to bare their political soul to me. My read is that they are still very concerned with operationalizing, instrumentalizing Trump for their domestic agenda. And so they’ve got these two big deals, the health care bill and a tax reform bill that they want to move through reconciliation, and they don’t want Trump to blow that up.
So they want—they don’t want to be disruptive until they get those two bills through. Second, they are worried about their primaries and they do understand that Trump is still very popular among the Republican base and so to start voting against him, to start a broad-based rhetorical assault on him, might ultimately be compromising their political survival. I think those two things are largely tamping down the way in which Republicans are turning their private objections into public objections.
Glasser: Is it just liberal fantasy, the idea that there could ever be a scenario where his Republican colleagues would turn on him and either support impeachment or removal from office in any other way?
Murphy: Well, that’s all fact-dependent. So I think you would ultimately have to have a pretty clear smoking gun on Trump’s connection to the Russian interference in our elections to get Republicans to start to have a conversation. But ultimately—I don’t know. I’ve sort of stayed away from impeachment hypotheticals because it is widely variant based upon what the facts are that might be in front of us.
Glasser: I’ve been amazed at just how much people just can’t stop talking about this as if there is some sort of external deus ex machina who is going to come and, sort of close the curtain on this chapter. That seems very unlikely given what we know about American politics.
Murphy: Yes, and we have this whole strain of thought within the Democratic base that perceives him as an illegitimate president. And so for those of us that have voted for his nominees, those of us that have actually said good things about a few of the policy positions he’s taken, we get grief for that. I don’t perceive him to be an illegitimate president. I’ll let the facts go where they may but maybe I’m one of the more high-profile members of the quote-unquote “resistance,” but I also have supported his nominees. I’ve applauded some of the things he’s done on Buy America policy. I still hold out hope that there are places in which I’m going to be able to work with him.
Glasser: How much are those debates dividing the Democratic Caucus right now?
Murphy: Not much. The Democratic Caucus has been largely united. In part because the policy has been so disastrous, right? Had they written a different health care repeal bill, maybe there would have been some divisions within the Democratic Caucus but when they’re talking about taking insurance away from 24 million people, it’s not hard to stay united. The Muslim ban was a Muslim ban and every Democrat understood it and they didn’t have any problems standing together to fight it. There probably comes a day down the line where there are some divisions within the caucus but right now, Trump is not interested in even attempting to exacerbate those potential divisions.
He is trying to—well, he is letting Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell run a Republican-only game in the Senate, which for the time being, has kept the Democrats pretty united.
Glasser: And it’s enabled you to become a resister-on-Twitter-in-chief in many ways, right? Because that’s been the overall setting. So I have to ask you, lots of speculation already starting about 2020. You have Joe Biden taking selfies with people in New Hampshire. You have your name appearing on many different lists, even though we’re very far out. You had your colleague from New York, Kirsten Gillibrand just saying the other day that she wasn’t going to run, although lots of parsing on what that exactly meant. So you’re young. You could have many shots at this. Is this something that you would be interested in in 2020 or down the road?
Murphy: It’s not something I can conceive of now. I’ve got a reelection ahead of me in 2018 and that’s where all of my focus is. I am interested in standing up and being part of a national effort to stop the Trump agenda. I do see the need to be part of that but, you know, my focus is really only on running for reelection. That’s what I’ve got to be concerned with right now.
Glasser: As you look at the politics inside the Democratic Party after this devastating loss, do you see that this populism, as expressed by Bernie Sanders and Trump, is burning itself out? Is that going to still be a huge factor for people like you going forward?
Murphy: Well, I think it will be an important factor because it’s scratching people where they itch and the lessons learned from Bernie’s campaign is not just sort of where he fell on the political spectrum but his ability to tap into big, easy-to-translate ideas, right? I was not among those who pilloried Bernie for putting out a—a sort of relatively vague proposal to deliver free college because free college is a great idea. The Democrats should absolutely be for free college. We shouldn’t be for entitlement reform that ends up in the diminution of Social Security benefits. We should be a party that’s for the expansion of Social Security benefits. These are good ideas that are also easy to understand.
And so whoever is our standard bearer in 2020 will have to make a decision to sort of where they fall on the political spectrum but they absolutely should learn from the Trump campaign that wherever you decide to fall with respect to ideology, you have to have a couple of big, easy-to-understand ideas if you want to become president.
Glasser: Okay, speaking of easy to understand—I know we’ve run out of time now so I want to ask you this: What’s your Twitter headline from this conversation we’ve just had here?
Murphy: [LAUGHS] My Twitter headline? I come back to the idea that every president will fail internationally if they view every problem through a military lens and that’s my worry about where we’re heading with this administration and that’s my worry about where we will continue to head, no matter which party occupies the White House, unless we get serious about giving the administration a new set of tools.
Glasser: So, yes, but in Twitter language, it’s like, “Trump won’t bomb them to submission” or something.
Murphy: I don’t know. So I will tell you honestly, on Twitter, even though it’s my voice, I do draft and redraft several times before I send something out. So I write something and I sort of—I don’t tend to ask anybody else about it. I tend to make up my mind myself but I never come up with the right thing to tweet the first time.
Glasser: So that “dumpster fire” was carefully considered? [LAUGHTER]
Murphy: I don’t know that it’s—I never have more than about three or four minutes in between meetings or phone calls to send these tweets out but I’ve learned to not tweet the first thing that comes into my head.
Glasser: [LAUGHS] And on that note, Senator Chris Murphy, I really want to thank you for being a terrific guest on The Global POLITICO and of course, I want to thank all of our listeners. I just heard that we’ve now reached a million downloads. That’s all of you listening just in the time since we’ve launched The Global POLITICO in February so I hope you’ll keep listening. I hope you’ll rate us on iTunes, subscribe to us. You can listen to us on iTunes or whatever your favorite podcast platform is and of course, you can email me with feedback or ideas for guests and many of you have been. I’m at SGlasser@POLITICO.com. Thanks again to all of you and, of course, to Senator Chris Murphy.
Murphy: Thank you.