WASHINGTON – Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today delivered a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate considering the possibility that the President of the United States may be compromised by a foreign government, and calling for consideration of the bipartisan Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act (DASKA), which would strengthen the hand of the U.S. government against Russian aggression.
Remarks as delivered by Senator Bob Menendez:
M. President, over the last two years, many of us have grappled with a very difficult question about our President. It’s a question that never before could we even imagine thinking about an American President, let alone saying aloud on the floor of the Senate.
I’m talking about the entirely legitimate question of whether Donald Trump could be compromised by the Russian government.
It’s more than a legitimate question -- it’s the natural question that comes to mind every time we learn more about the links between President Trump, his associates, and the Russian government.
With the Mueller investigation possibly coming to a close in the near future, we may be forced to deal with – both Congress and the American public – some very stark facts about the President’s ties to Russia. Just think about the reported revelations over the last month or so alone.
We’ve learned that President Trump took unprecedented steps to conceal the contents of his conversations with Putin from his own advisers.
We’ve learned that following one of his meetings with Putin, Trump phoned a New York Times reporter to argue that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 election -- once again carrying the Kremlin’s water in direct conflict with the entire U.S. intelligence community.
We’ve learned that over the past year, President Trump repeatedly argued for pulling the United States out of NATO.
And we continue to learn new details about Paul Manafort’s -- President Trump’s campaign chairman – meetings with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian national with suspected ties to Russian intelligence and an associate to Oleg Deripaska. We now know that Manafort met with Kilimnik repeatedly, provided him with polling data, and discussed ending sanctions and adopting a Russia-friendly peace plan for Ukraine.
This is perhaps the most significant indication that Trump’s inner circle was discussing pro-Kremlin policies in the months before the election.
And, tellingly, just last night we learned Manafort has lied, again and again, about the truth of his contacts and his conversations. Did Manafort determine that lying to prosecutors was a better alternative to telling the truth?
Finally, let’s not forget the revelation from just a few weeks ago that the nation’s top law enforcement agency reportedly opened a counterintelligence investigation into the President in part for firing the FBI director because of quote-unquote “this Russia thing.”
You cannot make this stuff up. Not in your wildest dreams, not even on the TV set of Homeland could you make this stuff up.
The news of a possible counterintelligence investigation against a sitting President should shake us all to the core.
Instead, we’re barely even surprised.
For the right-wing pundits who spoon-feed a warped reality to President Trump every hour of the day, it’s just one more excuse to paint him – the most powerful man in the world – as a victim. But for the rest of us, these revelations only sharpen the dread that gnaws at us as we search our minds for ANY explanation for President Trump’s perplexing posture toward Russia.
Look, I may have my differences with this President, on tax policy, on immigration policy, on health care policy and more. But let me assure you, every time he was set to meet with Putin, I, for one, hoped and prayed that our President would prove our suspicions wrong.
I hoped that the President of the United States would stand up to Putin, and demand accountability for Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections -- the cyberattacks, the stolen data, the malign social influence campaigns designed to stoke division and doubt in the American people.
I hoped that President Trump would make clear to Putin that illegal aggression against Ukraine and the continued denial of Ukrainian sovereignty is unacceptable and will result in consequences.
I had hoped President Trump would not congratulate Putin on another sham election victory, but operate from a position of truth about his grip on power; that it comes from the oppression of the Russian people, the seizure of their assets, the torture and murder of dissenters, the building of a chemical weapons arsenal, the denial of a free press and basic human rights.
And of course, I had hoped that President Trump would not budge an inch on sanctions on the Kremlin.
But time and again, our President has let us down. He’s let our country down.
He’s left Americans to lay awake at night asking themselves, what does Putin have on our President?
Why won’t he hold Russia accountable?
Why won’t he champion the values of democracy, freedom, and human rights that transcend political party, and define our greatest ideals as a nation?
Instead, our President champions talking points that could have only come out of the Kremlin. Let me provide a few examples.
He told the leaders of the G7 that Crimea should be a part of Russia.
He told the president of France to leave the EU. He said that Montenegro – a NATO member – could start World War III because they are “very aggressive people.”
He said that the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan because, and I quote, “terrorists were going into Russia” and Russia was “right to be there.”
The Wall Street Journal rightly said that “we cannot recall a more absurd misstatement of history by an American president.”
I would challenge anyone to find one person, one person in the State Department, the Defense Department, the National Security Council, who believes these statements and would have put them in the President’s ear.
So who does he get these ideas from?
I can think of only one person – his good friend Vladimir Putin.
Thus far, our greatest insights into what may be driving President Trump’s peculiar behavior toward Russia have come out of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, and the additional investigations spawned by it. With every new court filing, we learn that the tentacles of Russian influence over the President and his associates are wrapped tighter than we previously thought.
Meanwhile, the President and his cheerleaders on Fox News continue to discredit the Mueller probe as some kind of partisan witch hunt, when the truth is it as already resulted in four individuals sentenced, seven guilty pleas, and a total of more than 30 people and three Russian entities charged.
But all of this still begs the question, why?
Why does President Trump behave as though he’s been compromised by the Russian government?
Why is he so deferential to Putin?
Why have those around the President gone to such great lengths to cover up and lie about the extent of their interactions with Russians?
Of course, if we consider the possibility that the President is an asset of the Russian government, we then wonder whether he’s a witting or an unwitting asset.
On the one hand, it seems as though most of what President Trump does is unwitting.
Perhaps his refusal to take Russian interference in 2016 seriously is merely an outgrowth of his narcissism; a symptom of a fragile ego that cannot accept that maybe -- just maybe -- the unprecedented malign influence campaign orchestrated by the Kremlin did indeed sway some votes on Election Day.
On the other hand, the more I learn about President Trump’s strange behavior toward Russia, the more I wonder if he knows exactly what’s going on.
The more I wonder if he knows that his campaign was making promises about pro-Kremlin positions and rolling back sanctions.
The more I wonder if Trump knows that he’s indebted to Russia and cannot allow the truth of his business dealings to come to light.
For the truth may tell us that Trump’s overtures to Putin – his disparaging of NATO, his refusal to fully apply congressionally mandated sanctions, his mixed messages on Ukraine – are actually instances of conspiracy with the Kremlin in real time.
Perhaps it’s because I’m from New Jersey and lived through decades of Donald Trump’s questionable business dealings, but I cannot understand why anyone would flat out reject the proposition he’s indebted to Russia.
He’s the first presidential candidate in decades to refuse to disclose his tax returns. He’s the first President in modern history to refuse to divest from his business interests, leaving us wondering whether he and his family are profiting from his position in the Oval Office.
Behind the myth of the man, Trump is no business genius. He was a millionaire by age eight, thanks to his father. He ran his businesses into the ground. He defaulted on debts, refused to pay workers, and declared multiple corporate bankruptcies.
But eventually, American banks saw through him and refused to lend him money.
So Trump had to look elsewhere for cash. And when you’ve been essentially blacklisted from the U.S. banking system, where do you turn?
You turn to less savory sources.
The fact the Trump Organization courted and sold real estate to wealthy Russian buyers and financiers is no secret. Nor is the reality that to be wealthy in Putin’s Russia means to have close ties to the Kremlin. Much of the stolen wealth amassed by Putin and his cronies must be hidden from the global financial system.
So where do they turn? Real estate.
After a string of bankruptcies and racking up debt for years, the Trump Organization suddenly began making a spate of large, unexplainable cash purchases – totaling $400 million over nine years. Giant, mysterious, inexplicable cash transactions are the hallmark of money laundering! So where did they get the cash?
Well, if we are to believe the words of the President and his sons, much of it came from Russia. In fact it was Don. Jr. who said in 2008 that “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia,” and Eric Trump who reportedly said in 2014 “We don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia.”
We know that several Trump projects, like Trump Soho and Trump Toronto, received significant funding from Kremlin-linked financiers. In fact, Trump Toronto was funded by an asset sale by the Russian bank VTB – a transaction that would have likely needed approval from Putin himself. And we now know that the Trump Organization pursued the Trump Moscow project for far longer than he let on – including well into his campaign for President.
The President has unequivocally said that he has “zero investments in Russia.” Well, here’s the problem.
Donald Trump may not have investments in Russia, but it’s quite possible that the Kremlin has an investment in him.
That is what keeps me up at night, President.
That’s why I believe the time is now to pass legislation requiring all presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns, and why I’m a sponsor of such legislation. So many of my colleagues decried Trump’s shattering of this norm. But since he arrived in the White House, the Republican Majority has done nothing to stop it from becoming the new normal.
We still don’t know who is behind the vast majority of the Trump Organization projects around the world, many of which continue to this day. We have to follow the money to get to the truth. How else will we ever know why our President is either unable or unwilling to publicly stand up to Putin?
What too many of my Republican colleagues seem to forget is that at the end of the day, this is not about Donald Trump.
It’s about the American people.
It’s about whether an American President may be beholden to foreign interests and how those interests fare against our own.
When the President embraces our greatest adversaries and gives the back of the hand to our closest allies; when he continually denies Russia’s interference in 2016 and belittles the findings of our intelligence community; when, in spite of those findings, he suggests lifting sanctions on Russia; when he backs down from challenging Putin after Russia commits an unacceptable act of aggression against Ukraine in the Sea of Azov, then we need a Congress willing to live up to its role as a co-equal branch of government.
We cannot blindly follow a potentially compromised President down this dangerous path, in which our alliances are suffering, our leadership on the global stage is waning, and our competitors are seeking to fill the void.
We need to know the facts.
Not the latest spin dropped By Rudy Giuliani. The facts.
The American people deserve to know who they elected to be their president. They deserve to know if he is in fact putting American interests first. And they deserve to know if Donald Trump is an agent for the Russian Federation.
Congress must carry out its constitutional duty – to fully and thoroughly investigate where the facts lead.
That is why we must protect the integrity of all oversight efforts – including the objective, sober investigation, still being conducted by Robert Mueller. And that is why we must push for his final report to be made public to the American people.
At the same time, this Administration’s deference to the Kremlin demands Congress be proactive in shaping U.S. foreign policy toward Russia, especially with respect to sanctions. We saw that with the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions or CAATSA law passed in 2017 with the support of 98 Senators. But given the circumstances we face today, we need additional legislation to protect American interests.
That’s why Senator Graham and I introduced just yesterday the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act – or DASKA.
This comprehensive legislation will ensure our diplomats have the tools to advance our interests and stand up to the bully in the Kremlin. It includes new sanctions as well as provisions designed to harden our democratic institutions and make us less vulnerable to attack.
And perhaps most urgently, DASKA requires Senate consent should President Trump act on his desire to pull the United States out of NATO. To risk letting this President pull our nation out of a military alliance so vital to America’s security would be a tragedy fit for the ages.The collapse of NATO is number one on Mr. Putin’s wish-list.
And with leaders like Secretary Mattis no longer around to babysit this President, Congress has a responsibility to act.This bipartisan bill is essential to giving the United States a more solid footing against the Kremlin moving forward. We should treat DASKA with urgency. The time to pass this legislation is now.
We need hearings, a vote on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and swift consideration on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Likewise we must finally pass legislation to protect the Mueller investigation and to require all presidential candidates release their tax returns.
I know that deep down, many of my Republican colleagues share my concerns. I’ve talked to them, many of them. Yet they’re afraid of angering the Party of Trump. Well, I believe that they would be seen as American heroes.
For should the facts confirm our greatest fears to be true, I ask my colleagues to consider what the history books will say about those who knew the President of the United States was compromised by a foreign power and yet still did nothing.
I’m talking about my Republican colleagues who seem to have numbed themselves to the latest bombshell revelations about the President’s posture on Russia.
Apparently, they don’t want to know why Russia interfered in 2016 to help Trump win.
They don’t want to know why the Republican platform’s strong language on Russia was watered by Trump’s team.
They don’t want to know how someone deeply indebted to Russian oligarchs and later caught giving polling data to Russian intelligence contacts became chairman of the campaign.
They don’t want to know why Russia began hacking Hillary Clinton’s emails the same day Trump asked them to do so.
They don’t want to know why the President undermines our intelligence community and attacks law enforcement for investigating Russian interference.
They don’t want to know why he seeks to dismantle NATO – a pillar of security, prosperity, and the defense of western democratic ideals. They don’t want to know why he shares Putin’s joy when discord unfolds in Europe.
They don’t want to know why Trump forbid his interpreter from disclosing the contents of his conversations with Putin, and took his notes.
In short, they do not want to know the truth.
Well, now is not the time to ignore the facts or avoid the truth.
For we are living in a time of unthinkable questions, and should the facts reveal the most unthinkable of answers – we must do what’s necessary to protect the interests of the United States of America.