Here’s a complete transcript of Senator Jeff Merkley’s barn-burning speech from the Senate floor earlier today (Copied Directly from this web page) This speech mirrors my thoughts and concerns regarding the Trump administration and the vision for the democracy in America.
Mr. Merkley: thank you, madam president.
The most important three words in our constitution are the first three words: “We The People”. With those words, our founding fathers laid out the vision, the principle, the foundation for our new nation’s government. It would be, as President Lincoln so eloquently described, a government of the people, by the people and for the people. It would not be a government by and for the privileged. It would not be a government by and for the powerful. It would not be a government by and for the elite. And it certainly would not be an authoritarian government.
I believe it is more important than ever for us to recommit ourselves to that vision, a vision of a nation that measures its successes, not at the board room table but at the kitchen tables of hardworking Americans across this land. The vision of a nation that derives its power and authority from the people. In order to do that, Mr. President, we must resist President Trump’s dangerous tilt towards authoritarianism.
Throughout his candidacy, and now within the walls of the White House, President Trump has viciously, repeatedly attacked the media. He has inflamed people’s anger towards immigrants, towards religious minorities, toward refugees, and he has undermined or attacked individuals who publicly stand up to him and the shortcomings of his policies. These are core strategies used by authoritarian leaders from time immemorial to consolidate power. These are strategies that are incompatible with our constitutional “We The People” construction of government. And we must call out these strategies, and we must resist these strategies.
President Trump’s authoritarian leanings were there from the beginning. Like many figures throughout history, he rode into office based as much on a cult personality as on the merits of his policies. It started with the nicknames and the unrestrained insults, calling opponents crooked and lying and phony, calling critics dumb as a rock, incompetent, crazy or dishonest. He escalated the calls to toss out or hurt protesters at his rallies. At one point, he even promised to pay the legal bills of a man arrested for punching a protester at a rally in North Carolina. And then there were the “lock her up” chants, calling for imprisoning a political opponent that he repeated himself. Threatening to throw your opponent in jail if you win is a strategy usually seen only with dictators. Mr. Trump himself best summed up his populist cult of personality when he said at one campaign event, and I quote, “I could stand in the middle of fifth avenue and shoot somebody, okay?, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay?”, end of quote. The scary thought is that he was probably not so far off the mark. And this aggressive and unswerving loyalty is a challenge to our “We The People” democracy.
Let’s take a look at Senior White House Policy Advisor Steven Miller’s declaration on “Face The Nation” last month. He said, quote, “Our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see, as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned”. Interesting statement to make. The president’s powers will not be questioned. What a bold, un-American, authoritarian statement to make, because here in America, our nation, our national government is premised on the concept that we can challenge our leaders. It is not only a privilege, it is a responsibility. Yet Mr. Trump has repeatedly attacked this fundamental American principle and those who exercise it.
Take, for instance, his attack on freedom of the press. As Demosthenes , an ancient Greek statesman, legal scholar of the third century B.C. once said, quote, “There is one safeguard known generally to the wise, which is an advantage and security to all, but especially to democracies as against despots: suspicion”, end of quote. What Demosthenes was saying was that in a democracy, we don’t take the statements of our political leaders simply at face value. We test those statements against the facts to find our way to the truth. In the United States, a free and open press is how we exercise that suspicion and find our way to the truth. Thomas Jefferson believed that. He said “our liberty depends on the freedom of the press”. Our liberty depends upon the freedom of the press. Benjamin Franklin echoed that belief when he said “freedom of speech is ever the symptom as well as the effect of good government”. John Adams wrote “the liberty of the press is essential to the security of the state”. So essential, in fact, that the founding fathers enshrined our commitment to a free and open press in the very first amendment to the constitution, that congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.
Yet what we have seen time and time again from President Trump is an endless attack against the fourth estate, against the press. He said the media is “very unfair, they’re very biased”, he complained on Fox News last August. He attacked The New York Times in that same interview, not for the first or last time, saying “you look at the New York Times, I mean the fail — I call it the failing New York Times.” And apparently, any news story critical of the president is now “fake news”. He tweeted in February that, quote, “any negative polls are fake news”. And when asked about leaks from the intelligence community during the last month’s press conference in the East Room, he said “The leaks are absolutely real. The news is fake, because so much of the news is fake”. His staff has gone into action, too, pushing at one point the Orwellian term “alternative facts”. During an interview on NBC’s “meet the press,” Kellyanne Conway said “Our press secretary, Sean Spicer, gave alternative facts and we in the administration feel compelled to go out and clear the air and put alternative facts out there”. The White House has taken their fight with the media so far as to block access to outlets that they disagree with, banning outlets like CNN, Politico, the BBC, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times to an off-camera press briefing last month
But of all of President Trump’s relentless attacks against the media, the most disturbing to me was when he tweeted in February that, and I quote, “The fake news media, the failing New York Times, NBC News, ABC, CBS, CNN is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people”.
President Trump, I have a message for you. A free and open press is not the enemy of the American people. A free and open press is the salvation of our democratic republic. It is the essential warrior in our republic against fake news, against charlatans and against those who would use fake news and attacks on the press to advance authoritarian government.
I thought my colleague from Arizona, Senator McCain, made a very apt analysis when he said that suppressing free speech is, quote, “how dictators get started”. When you look at history, the first thing dictators do is shut down the press. Senator McCain went on to say that if you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times an adversarial press.
So this is a major concern, this attack on the media, and particularly attack on news organizations that work to vet their reporting before they share it with the American people. In other words, we’re in the ironic situation that the very groups under attack by President Trump are the groups that work hardest to get true facts, actual facts, vetted facts, carefully fact-checked information to the American people. And that’s the foundation for a national dialogue, carefully vetted information so that we know when we read it it’s reliable. That’s the type of news we need more of in this nation.
But Mr. Trump’s authoritarian tactics aren’t just limited to his war on the media. His second approach is to attack and scapegoat immigrants and really just minorities, and refugees.
Ever since he stood in the lobby of Trump tower and said, quote, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists”. Since then, President Trump has made it his mission to turn the American people against Mexican immigrants. To make them the enemy. He has talked about the bad hombre’s flooding across our southern border, stealing our jobs, committing crimes, and murdering American citizens. In his mind, the people coming from Mexico are dangerous, violent cartel members, transporting an endless supply of drugs into our country in order to ruin America. But this story line is completely at odds with the facts. First, drug cartels do not ship their products into our country through the backpacks of immigrants. Recently, I traveled with a congressional delegation to the U.S.-Mexico border to examine this issue. The experts on the border told our delegation that drugs come into the United States through freight in trucks and through tunnels, not through backpacks. What this means is that a proposal to build a wall, whether it’s 20 feet high or 30 feet high will be absolutely useless in diminishing the flow of drugs into our country.
I’ll tell you what else they told us. They said an end zone defense doesn’t work against drugs. If you want to stop the flow of drugs, you have to work carefully with everything from the moment they’re being manufactured or shipped into Mexico until they migrate north. And that means you have to work in close cooperation with the security agencies of Mexico, with the police, with the intelligence agencies in Mexico, and that that cooperation requires a very close coordination between respected partners, and disrespecting the partners in Mexico is the best way to damage the ability to intercept drugs coming into the United States.
We also know that the underlying premise that there is a flood of Mexican immigrants coming into our country is false. A 2015 study from the Pew Research Center found that between 2009 and 2014, there was a net outflow of 140,000 immigrants from Mexico to the United States. So they were migrating from the United States to Mexico. And that outflow — A more recent Pew study determined that the number of undocumented Mexican immigrants in America has declined by more than one million since 2007. So if you take the span of the Obama administration, there’s been an outflow, not an inflow. The exact opposite of the story line that the president is presenting.
And what about those violent crimes being committed by undocumented criminals? The data doesn’t support the president. In fact, the New York Times reported that, and I quote, “several studies over many years have concluded that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States”. Between 1980 and 2010 among men ages 18 to 49, immigrants were one-half to one-fifth as likely to be incarcerated as those born in the United States.
When you look closer, the attacks on immigrants fall apart as I’ve pointed out, but that is what authoritarian leaders do. They create a false enemy. And they use the perception of that enemy to generate hate and fear. And they use that hate and fear to consolidate power. It is our responsibility as citizens, as the press of the United States, as legislators to resist this authoritarian strategy of President Trump.
Another of his strategies is to attack religious minorities in our country and abroad. Take, for instance, his pledge on the campaign trail for a, quote, “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”. As we know, Mr. Trump followed up on this approach after the election by asking Rudy Giuliani to help fashion a legal Muslim ban. During a Fox News interview, Mr. Giuliani said that Trump, quote, “called me up. He said, put a commission together. Show me the right way to do it legally to attempt to meet constitutional muster”. Trump aimed his ban at immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations. As Rudy Giuliani went on to say, “what we did was we focused on instead of religion, danger. The areas of the world that create danger for us, which is a factual basis, not a religious basis, perfectly legal, perfectly sensible. That’s what the ban is based on”.
But as William Banks, the Director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University has observed, since 9/11, no one has been killed in this country in a terrorist attack by anyone who immigrated from any of the seven countries. The president’s own Department of Homeland Security recently reported that citizens from the countries listed in the Muslim ban are rarely implicated in U.S.-based terrorism. In fact, the report concluded that individuals who died in the pursuit of or were convicted of terrorism were far more likely to be U.S. born than to be immigrants.
Well, here is a great irony, and the tragedy, of President Trump’s effort to demonize Muslims. Instead of protecting the United States, he is damaging the security of the United States. His attack feeds perfectly into and therefore strengthens ISIS’s recruiting strategy of claiming that the U.S. is at war with Islam. Video of his speeches and public statements, especially Trump’s call for a Muslim ban have already been featured in ISIS’s recruiting tools. In addition, it weakens the Muslim leaders that we are seeking to partner with in taking on ISIS. It undermines those leaders’ support from their own countries for cooperating with the United States. So Trump’s strategy does double damage to American security.
And I wish his impact against religious minorities stopped there. I wish they stopped long before there. Because incompatible with the fundamental premise and fundamental values of the United States of America of religious freedom, but throughout the course of his campaign he gave voice time and again to the views and opinions of white nationalists and anti-Semites. Now he didn’t directly attack the Jewish community, but his white nationalist rhetoric and actions have an effect of doing it indirectly. When the news or information, he turns to the white nationalist Breitbart news, a fake news source which has infamously attacked American Jews with stories like “Bill Crystal, republican spoiler, renegade Jew”. Another one attacking Ann Applebaum of the Washington Post says, “hell have no fury like a Polish Jewish American elitist scorned”. But President Trump doesn’t just tap into the Breitbart white nationalist themes. He brought the former executive chair of Breitbart, Steve Bannon, into the White House as his chief strategist, and then appointed him to the Principles Committee of the National Security Council. This individual has no business being anywhere near the capital of the United States and certainly not on the Principles Committee of the National Security Council. Bannon is a man who not only has been embraced by white supremacists for his views but according to testimony from his ex-wife has said he doesn’t want his children going to school with Jewish kids and once asked the school administrator why there were so many Hanukkah books in the library.
If you think this theme hasn’t had a real effect on our country, you’re wrong. When Donald Trump was elected, the KKK and other white national groups celebrated. They felt free to come out of the shadows. They felt bold enough to hold an annual white nationalist conference right here in Washington, D.C. at the Ronald Reagan Building, steps from the White House. Because they finally felt like they had one of their own in the oval office. These nationalist groups are so emboldened that we have seen more than 100 bomb threats called into Jewish community centers around the country since January. We’ve witnessed the desecration of Jewish headstones in cemeteries in St. Louis and in Philadelphia.
The president, speaking to a room full of state attorneys general last month, said that he condemned these threats, and I applaud him for condemning them. And then he turned around to say you have to be careful because the reverse could be true. What does he mean by that? Commentators have suggested the president meant by the reverse could be true that the bomb threats, the swastika graffiti, the desecration of Jewish burial sites might actually be the work of Jewish Americans. To generate criticism of President Trump. There is no evidence of this. And I certainly don’t believe it to be true, but what I do believe is that a blame the victim tactic is reprehensible and in itself an anti-Semitic strategy.
The president has also dedicated a significant amount of time to trying to make the country fear refugees, to demonize refugees. Many of us grew up in a world where Lady Liberty’s words “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” stirred our heart because unless you are a hundred percent native American, you are tied if, through your parents, your grandparents, your great-grandparents, your ancestors, you are tied into those who immigrated to the United States, who came here often fleeing persecution, often fleeing famine, and this nation gave them a place to stand and build a new life and thrive and hand down a better, stronger nation to their children. That’s the property of our history, that is a value deeply rooted in our hearts.
But the president instead has dedicated his energy to attacking refugees, those like our ancestors who came here fleeing persecution and fleeing famine, especially Syrian refugees fleeing for their lives in search for a safe haven. He has falsely claimed that they represent, quote, “a great Trojan Horse”, end of quote, that threatens the safety of Americans. Mr. Trump says these victims of war have to be subjected to extreme vetting because we have no idea who these people are or where they come from.
The fact is we do know who they are. We know exactly where they come from because before they can come here as refugees, they already go through extreme vetting. It takes 18 months to two years of vetting on average before a refugee is given a ticket to come to the United States of America. And if at any point during that 18 to 24 months something doesn’t add up, they don’t get the ticket. Now, if ISIS or another terrorist organization wants to get someone dangerous into our country, they don’t come through an 18 or 24-month vetting process. No. They’d come on a tourist visa or a student visa or a business visa. Going through the refugee process would be the worst possible way to do it. As an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute reminded us in October 2015, of the 784,000 refugees that have been resettled in our country between September 11, 2001, three have been arrested for planning terrorist activities and none of those got past the planning phase. And only one of those three was talking about potential attacks here in the United States. The others were talking about sending money and weapons To Al Qaeda.
So in other words, no one has been injured by those 784,000 refugees. These are just some of the pieces of the president’s authoritarian strategy to demonize groups, to create hate, to create fear and try to consolidate power. And we’ve seen as a result of his activities ways of hate — waves of hate crimes and violence and bigotries sweep across our nation. Latinos in our schools and classrooms have been forced to confront classmates’ bullying and taunts, chants of build the wall, go back to your country. Graffiti sprayed on walls to build the wall higher. We heard reports of verbal and physical attacks against people of the Muslim faith like the woman at San Jose University who lost her balance and choked when a man attempted to rip off her head scarf off. Or a Muslim student at the University of Illinois-Champagne who reported having a knife pulled on her. Or the Muslim teacher in Georgia who found a note left on her desk that said head scarf not allowed and that she should hang herself with it.
Within the last eight weeks, four mosques around the country have been burned to the ground. And just recently a man in Kansas went into a bar, hurled ethnic slurs at two Indian engineers, shot them, killing one, seriously injuring the other. And as I mentioned earlier, since January there’s been more than a hundred bomb threats against Jewish community centers.
Throughout history, we’ve seen this tactic used by an executive here, an executive there, by a dictator here, a dictator there, in country after country: to characterize minority communities as a threat to be feared, in order to make the body politic afraid, to make them angry, and to make them willing to support authoritarian exercise of power. What is our job? To expose this strategy. To call attention to this strategy. To address the myths that are used to instill fear and the falsehoods that are used to instill hatred. It is our job to oppose this authoritarian game plan in every way possible.
The third leg of President Trump’s authoritarian attacks are ones that come against public opposition to him, and to attack the protests of the people of the United States.
What was the president’s response after millions of people in cities all around the country, and all around the world, for that matter, joined the Women’s March to stand up for the fundamental values of peace, tolerance, and equality? His response was a rebuke and a dismissal. He tweeted, “Watched the protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn’t these people vote?” Well, President Trump, they did vote. And they all voted overwhelmingly for your opponent by a three-million-vote margin. And we saw similarly disparaging responses from Republican lawmakers, like the Facebook post from a state senator in Mississippi, “so a group of unhappy liberal women voted in Washington, D.C. we shouldn’t be surprised. Liberal women are all unhappy”. And after countless citizens began showing up at town hall meetings to make their voices heard, what was his response? He dismissed these engaged citizens as so-called angry crowds. And then he tweeted, “professional anarchists, thugs, and paid protesters are proving the point of the millions of people who voted to make America great again!”
Now, I’ve held a lot of town halls since January, and many of them filled beyond capacity with regular citizens who are deeply distressed by what they are seeing in our country. At one town hall in … county, 3500 people showed up — or, more than 3,500 people. We had so many people that the hundreds of folks who couldn’t get in had to stand outside the building in the cold listening — we took a speaker and put it in the window so that outside could hear and they watched through the windows. This is We The People government. This is American citizens saying, your strategy, President Trump, is not okay. Your strategy to divide us into factions in America and pitch one faction against another, to demonize groups, to incite hate is just wrong.
But I find it truly disheartening to see the president attacking citizens exercising their voice, which is often the most basic civic duty. President Jefferson said that there is a mother principle for our government, and the mother principle is that the actions of the government will only reflect the will of the people if each and every citizen has an equal voice. Well, now we know in the modern day of campaign financing that some citizens — and indeed often some noncitizens; that is, massive, rich corporations — have a very loud voice compared to the average citizen. So citizens, to compensate, are saying we are going to show up. We’re going to take our time and our energy and we’re going to join together and we’re going to send a lot of emails to Capitol Hill, a lot of letters to Capitol Hill. But we’re also going to show up in the parks and the streets to march in order to say that this strategy, this authoritarian strategy, or this strategy to take away health care from millions of Americans, is absolutely unacceptable.
And the president somehow is living in a fantasy world where he thinks they’re paid. I don’t think so. I don’t think this last weekend when 800 people showed up to Redmond, Oregon, to my town hall, that a single one of them was paid — not a single one. Or we look across the country and we see the 7-year-old who wanted to be in a town hall because he doesn’t want us to cut funding for PBS to build a wall – he wasn’t paid. Or the Muslim immigrant who risked his life as a military reporter in Afghanistan and now wants to know who’s going to save me here? He wasn’t paid. American citizens are using their voice — as designed, in our We The People constitution.
But in the mind of our president and the words of his advisor Steven Miller, his powers are, quote, “very substantial and will not be questioned”. Not even by the citizens and voters of this great nation. Well, they are being questioned — massively — by citizens raising their voice in every possible way. Mr. President, American citizens everywhere are deeply disturbed by what they’re seeing unfold in our nation. They fear that we are headed down a dark and dangerous path that will betray the founding principles of our We The People government.
And they have every right to be anxious and concerned. There have been allusions made by a number of experts about Mr. Trump’s actions and especially in the early days of Putin’s regime and especially his relentless war against the media. All of these are reasons that citizens are fired up, raising their voices to oppose the authoritarian tactics of this administration. And when the president seeks to dismiss the legitimacy of these voices, I stand here today to praise those Americans for standing up, for taking on their responsibility as citizens, to create a powerful, courageous chorus, a public stand against the authoritarian strategy of President Trump. His strategy of attacking the media, his strategy of attacking immigrants, his strategy of attacking refugees, his strategy of attacking religious minorities. A friend sent me a message the other day saying, quote, “I’m more devastated daily. I can’t believe the republicans are not stopping this, saying something. How can this be happening? Don’t they see what’s happening? I weep for my kids.”
Millions of Americans across the country are feeling those same fears, and it’s up to all of us here, imbued with the awesome responsibility to speak for, represent the people of this nation, to stand up against advancing authoritarianism. It is right for us to fight for a free, open democratic republic with a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Mr. President, I yield the floor.
Keith Obermann on Trumps Authoritarian wishes
“I alone can fix it”