Yesterday I posted a video and my ideas about what the rest of the world thinks of the US now that we have chaos in the world and #FUCKTRUMP as president. Today I have some confirmation that fear and confusion are two good words to use. I follow Chris Murphy, one of the Senators from neighboring Connecticut. I urge you to sign-up for his newsletter and follow him as well. Here is what he sent me today (I, out of respect, have kept all the content original including his fundraising link).
Every year in February, heads of state, foreign ministers, defense secretaries and key legislators meet in Munich, Germany for the Munich Security Conference. It is perhaps the most important inclusive meeting on global security every year, and for three of the five years I have served in the Senate, I have had the honor of being part of the U.S. congressional delegation, led each year by my friend, Senator John McCain.
This year, the conference couldn’t have come at a more important time, as the world is reeling from last November’s American election and trying to gauge which direction U.S. foreign policy is heading. As is my custom when I travel, I wrote up an insider, behind-the-scenes account of my trip, and I’m passing it along to you.
Thursday – A Trip Delayed
Traveling with Senator McCain is always a test of endurance. Once I approached him about joining me for a short weekend conference in Poland, and by the time we left, McCain had turned our weekend trip to Poland into a weekend trip to Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine. This time, McCain has decided we need to stop at NATO Headquarters in Brussels on the way to Munich. McCain’s intent is clear – to show congressional support for NATO in the face of President Trump’s criticism and prevarication.
McCain has assembled quite a crew for the trip. Normally, congressional delegations vary from three to six members. This trip has fourteen, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. I sense that interest in the trip has grown as Senators have watched the foreign policy blunders of the first month of the Trump Administration – maybe showing bipartisan congressional support for our allies can make up for the inconsistent and often bizarre signals being sent by Trump.
In order to make the stop in Brussels, we need to fly overnight Thursday. But now there is a major hitch. The Republicans are intent in finishing the nomination of Scott Pruitt to EPA Administrator before the end of the week, and Democrats, still furious that Trump would put someone in charge of the EPA who believes climate change is hoax, are prepared to use every hour allotted to us to protest this reckless, dangerous nomination.
As debate continues Thursday night, McCain makes the decision to push the departure to Friday and scrap the NATO stop. This is a disappointment, but fighting Pruitt with all we have is too important. I head home for a few hours’ sleep before getting up at 5am so that I can cover the early morning shift on the Senate floor during the confirmation debate. As the youngest member of the Senate Democratic Caucus, it’s been my habit to volunteer for the overnight and early morning hours for these long confirmation fights. I figure it’s the least I can do to show I’m part of the team. I speak against Pruitt at around 6:30am to a nearly empty Senate chamber.
Friday – to Munich
I come back to the office after the Pruitt vote (we lost), change into comfortable clothes for traveling, and head downstairs to meet the bus that is taking our delegation to Andrews Air Force Base where our plane awaits. It’s a military plane, with no flight attendants or food, so I stop at the cafeteria on the way out the door to load up on snacks to eat for dinner on the plane.
When McCain travels to the Munich Security Conference, he brings along a “who’s who” of private sector national security professionals and journalists. Along with the members of Congress, on our plane are people like Bill Burns, the former Deputy Secretary of State, Josh Rogin, writer at the Washington Post, and General Doug Lute, former Ambassador to NATO. The plane ride is always a unique chance to learn and listen from some of the great minds on foreign policy. I huddle with my friend Toria Nuland for a while, listening to her explain her decision to resign as Assistant Secretary of State for Europe shortly after Trump’s election. Toria is one of our top experts on Russia and has worked for Presidents of both parties – her departure is a huge loss to the Department.
At some point, I decide to try to get some sleep. I never sleep great on planes, but I manage to fit in a few hours. We land at 6am Munich time, and head right to the conference to begin our meetings.
Saturday – A big surprise at dinner
There are two ways to spend your time at the Munich Security Conference: you can sit in the main hall and listen to the speakers and panels, or you can join in the small meetings that McCain and his staff set up in the room reserved for the U.S. congressional delegation. On Saturday, we meet with an impressive array of world leaders in that room. Ashraf Ghani, President of Afghanistan, Haider Al-Abadi, President of Iraq, Massoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, Dusko Markovic, Prime Minister of Montenegro, and the Prime Minister, Defense Minister, and Foreign Minister of Norway.
In the meetings, a familiar theme repeats itself – what the hell is going on in the Trump Administration? The Iraqi leader cannot understand why at the very moment the U.S. government is asking his soldiers to fight and die to retake Mosul from ISIS, they are told that they are too dangerous to enter the United States. The Norwegians worry about how the world continues to make progress on fighting climate change if the U.S. pulls out of the Paris Climate Accord. The Montenegro leader explains to us the details of the recent Russian backed coup attempt, and probes us as to why Trump is showing signs of accommodation to Putin.
We struggle to come up with answers, but it seems that hearing Republican and Democratic Senators express support for these countries is meaningful (though not adequate) consolation for the turmoil in the Trump Administration. Senators cannot be a substitute for the Administration in foreign policy, but we are trying at least to salve some of the early wounds.
We all enter the main hall to hear the big speech on Saturday from Vice President Mike Pence. It’s a good speech – full of assurance for Europe and pledges that the Trump Administration will not allow Russia to continue its expansion into Eastern Europe. But the speech falls totally flat with audience, because the leaders in the hall simply don’t believe that Pence is actually speaking for Trump. A section of Pence’s speech focused on the “shared values” between the U.S. and Europe. Was he not aware that earlier that very day, his boss declared that the free press, a pillar of trans-Atlantic democracy, is the “enemy of the people”? Pence’s speech includes many applause lines, but there is little applause to be heard. As an American, it’s hard to be in the room, watching in real time as our influence withers.-
That night, we are in for a treat. Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the true originals of the Senate, has organized a dinner to discuss fighting global poverty. He informs us that one of guests at the dinner is going to be Bono, the lead singer of U2. It turns out Bono is at the Munich Security Conference in his role as a co-founder of the ONE Campaign to end global extreme poverty. Lindsey and I don’t agree on much, but we are working together on a plan to dramatically increase foreign aid funding. The best way to fight back against extremism is to build economically and democratically stable societies. A long time ago, in the wake of World War II, the U.S. did this in Europe with the Marshall Plan. It worked, but we’ve never tried to do it again. Bono, through his work with the ONE Campaign, also works on this issue, and I’m looking forward to seeing one of my heroes at dinner.
I sit down at the table (at a German beer hall) and the seat across from me is marked as reserved. After a few minutes, Bono walks in, flanked by two unexpected guests, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright and Bill Gates. Gates sits down in the seat across from me. Over dinner, Bill Gates, Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, and I have one of the most fascinating conversations I’ve had in a while. We talk about happiness – how you define it, how you measure it. We agree that government cannot make people happy, but if government doesn’t know what actually makes people happy, then how can it choose the right things to do and the right things to leave alone? Gates talks about the value of work – feeling that when you leave your family every day that you have a true purpose for eight hours a day. Sasse talks about personal connection – feeling that when you come home there are people who truly rely on you and give you meaning. I talk about the increase of envy – the ability, in a hyper connected world, to see people that are doing better than you, and the risk of measuring your happiness in relative terms to the perceived happiness of others.
It’s a fascinating dinner, and I’m sorry to leave it, but my day is not quite over. I’ve set up a 9:30 meeting back at the hotel with Brett McGurk, Obama’s special envoy to coordinate the anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria, and also a West Hartford native. He’s a friend, and Trump has wisely asked him stay on. I gather a group of Senators and Congressmen for a drink with Brett in one of the private delegation rooms, and he spent an hour and a half going over the status of the counter-ISIS campaign and Trump’s review of the plan to retake Raqqa in Syria. I’m grateful Brett has decided to stay on, and though he and I don’t see eye to eye on every aspect of the policy, his influence in the Trump Administration is sorely needed right now. For instance, he doesn’t think a massive deployment of U.S. combat troops to Syria is a good idea.
Sunday – Doing battle with Lindsey Graham
Sunday starts with breakfast with German Bundestag members. They ask, point blank, whether Pence is actually representing Trump or if he is freelancing. Senator McCain, who gave a speech on the opening day that was very critical of Trump, once again assures the Germans that Congress will not allow America to walk away from the values we share with Europe.
I have to leave the breakfast early because my turn on stage is Sunday. Lindsey Graham, Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and I are set for what is billed as a “congressional debate” on U.S. foreign policy. Lindsey and I aren’t close friends, but we get along well, and we often do battle in the Appropriations Committee on foreign policy (he is one of the most hawkish members of Congress – I am one of biggest skeptics of military intervention abroad). We slide into familiar roles on the panel. Lindsey says that the U.S. must check Iranian influence in the Middle East. I respond that getting involved in the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran would be a disaster.-
But Lindsey is also tough on Trump. He says unequivocally that Congress is going to pass new sanctions against Russia this year no matter what Trump says. He calls on the President to strongly condemn the Russian interference in the fall election. He says that while the press is a “pain in the ass,” they are vital to democracy.-
At the end of the panel, I can’t help but state the obvious – the early days of Trump’s foreign policy have been a disaster. One day Trump is questioning the “One China” policy, the next day he is confirming it. One day his U.N. Ambassador is making a strong statement about Russia and Ukraine; two days later Trump is on national TV questioning whether Russia really invaded eastern Ukraine. The crowd seems to be relieved that someone is openly acknowledging these facts. Denial isn’t really healthy. It’s not comfortable to be criticizing American foreign policy when abroad, but our delegation risks looking like we are out of step with reality if we don’t acknowledge what has happened during the first month of the new Administration.
It’s time to head to the airport, and I’m exhausted. After a lot of late nights fighting Trump’s nominees on the Senate floor, this way no way to recover. But I’m beginning to understand that if I am going to be an effective voice against the reckless Trump policies and rhetoric, I am going to have increase my operational tempo. This is a great test for American democracy, and our country’s commitment as a world leader. It’s going to take many more long nights and exhaustive weekends to save our country and our world from the peril is now faces.
Munich was a nice reminder that in this endeavor, Democrats might not always have to do it alone.
Thanks for reading.
Every best wish,
U.S. Senator, Connecticut
P.S. I am up for re-election this year, and there is no doubt the NRA and an emboldened Republican Party have their sights set on this seat. The response to emails I send helps fund our campaign, and keeps me focused on the work you expect me to do. Please add a contribution today. It’s important.