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Merkley: We need a tough president, not weak repetition of Russian talking points

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told senators that the Trump administration has been tougher on Russia than its predecessor, and that the president has the prerogative to have private conversations with his Cabinet and with other leaders. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., tells Nick Schifrin that Trump has actually been very slow to act, and has had to be “dragged, screaming” into taking any firm stand.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    Now, for a perspective from the other side of the aisle, Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon.

    Senator, thank you very much for joining us.

    Secretary Pompeo — Secretary Pompeo said that the administration's been tough on Russia, tougher than its predecessor, and that the president has the prerogative to have private conversations with his own Cabinet and with other leaders.

    Were those answers sufficient?

  • Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.:

    Oh, absolutely not.

    What we have seen is a president who refused to critique Russia on their — their annexation of Crimea, their holding the eastern edge of Ukraine. He hasn't criticized them over the attacks on individuals in Britain with chemical weapons. He hasn't criticized them for cozying up and supporting the Syrian government as it dropped barrel bombs and gassed its own people.

    And he certainly hasn't criticized them for cyber-attacking our elections. And we heard nothing today to contravene that. In fact, what we did hear, the one thing we did hear is that there is not yet any type of agreement with North Korea, not even over creating an inventory of its ballistic missile and nuclear assets.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I want to get to North Korea in a second.

    But the president's defenders on Russia say, well, you are criticizing some of the president's rhetoric or lack of criticism, as you put it, but the policies have been aggressive on Russia in Eastern Ukraine, and also that the president has actually pushed forward, in terms of getting rid of Russian intelligence officials and closed consulates in the U.S. ,something his predecessor didn't do.

  • Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.:

    Well, was noted in the hearing today, the president has failed to implement all of the cuts, provisions or sanctions on Russia.

    We basically, Democrats, Republicans, all came together and said, you must do this, which is just unprecedented. And the president still was very slow to implement, very slow to act. He's had to have been dragged, screaming into taking any type of firm stand in that regard.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The president's defenders also say that Russia and the United States have 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons, the two leaders should be talking.

    Don't you believe that the two leaders should be talking?

  • Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.:

    Oh, absolutely, I agree with that. But it helps to have a — the president actually learn something about the topics before he meets with a former spy chief who's extraordinarily capable.

    The president came away essentially spouting all of the positions of the Russian government, instead of fighting for the United States. We need a watchdog for the United States. We need a fierce effort to take on the cyber-attacks in the United States, which really are acts of war.

    We need the president to say, get those additional sanctions done, I'm going to implement them, and pass the DETER Act, which would say, if Russia meddles in another election, there will be enormous economic consequences for that nation.

    We need a tough, president, not this weak repetition of Russian talking points from our commander in chief.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Secretary of State Pompeo indicated that he would support a further bill that would actually impose automatic sanctions on Russia or any other country that is deemed to impede in U.S. elections.

    Do you trust and believe that the U.S. administration will actually protect this election and elections moving forward?

  • Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.:

    Well, I am pleased to hear that today. But we need the president to actually come to Capitol Hill, make the case, say to the Senate, get it — get it passed, say to the House, get it passed, I want it on my desk.

    We need the president show some leadership on this.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On North Korea, we have seen a freeze in missile and nuclear tests. We have seen the closing of this engine testing site.

    Are those signs, as Secretary Pompeo suggested today, that the U.S. and North Korea are in a better place today than they were under the previous two administrations?

  • Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.:

    We have had under previous presidents North Korea do the same dance. They put in a temporary freeze. They said they support complete denuclearization.

    We have even gotten further with some detailed agreements. This administration hasn't gotten to the detailed agreements, not even a survey of their ballistic missile capabilities or of their enrichment capabilities or of their nuclear warhead capabilities.

    And, in fact, today, it was confirmed by the secretary that North Korea at this very moment is continuing to enrich and create more nuclear materials.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Secretary Pompeo — quickly, Senator, in the 30 seconds we have left, Secretary Pompeo insisted that there are other issues that have been discussed between the U.S. and North Korea that he couldn't talk about in open session.

    Do you have faith that there are other issues that North Korea has pledged to that will lead to denuclearization?

  • Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.:

    No, I don't have much faith.

    I'm in a show-me mode. We have security clearances. He could come and brief us on that. But, at this point, there's very little to show, other than the same dance we have seen under previous efforts, in fact, even less now, because our president, up front, agreed, not as a reward for advancing, but just as a concession, tore down our joint exercises with South Korea.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, thank you very much.

  • Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.:

    You're welcome. Thank you.

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