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Sen. Jeff Merkley On Khashoggi, Russia Treaty


Growing international outrage over the killing of a Washington Post columnist has the Trump administration on its heels while a migrant caravan at the border between Guatemala and Mexico has the president on the offense. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, sits on the Senate foreign relations committee, and he joins us this morning. Senator, thanks for being on the program.

JEFF MERKLEY: You bet. Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Good morning. You've joined your voice to a bipartisan chorus of criticism regarding Jamal Khashoggi. He died at Saudi hands in their Istanbul consulate. The Saudis took a very long time to explain his death, and many details of those explanations seem difficult to believe. But the president wants to give the kingdom the benefit of the doubt. Will the Senate allow that?

MERKLEY: Well, the Senate needs to have a very intense discussion about this because, basically, President Trump is giving a sense that this is a credible story, this half-baked story, instead of sending a powerful message about American support for human rights and free press. I mean, this - it just seems like, almost like our administration - the Trump administration - is working hand-in-hand with the Saudi government to take a very serious situation and try to dismiss it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What should the response be? What should that powerful message be?

MERKLEY: Well, the message should start by saying this story is completely unacceptable. It's full of every kind of holes - not giving it any sort of credibility and that we have to get to the bottom of everything that happened. Second is we need to realize that this is one piece of a broader set of issues we have to address. Prior to the incident in the consulate, the Saudis were using an intense team of folks on Twitter to discredit Khashoggi and other dissidents around the world.

And furthermore, they are involved in this horrific war in Yemen, where we are actually assisting them. And this is a situation where you have the worst cholera epidemic ever recorded in the world. You have millions of people at risk of starvation. And here we are still providing fuel for their planes and intelligence for their operation. So we need to have that full examination. And what are the tools that are in our hands? And there's a host of things, yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, well, exactly. I mean, you're saying that, I mean, the United States provides weapons, for example, that are used in Yemen. Should those weapons deals be shredded? I mean, should the United States stop providing weapons to the Saudis for now?

MERKLEY: Absolutely. There's already been bipartisan support for ending these sales, these precision-guided munitions. There was initially some support for selling them because the thought was the Saudis were hitting civilian infrastructure in Yemen because they didn't have precision-guided munitions. And then when the U.S. provided them, they used them to hit civilian locations and thus shattering the infrastructure and placing millions of people at great, great, great risk. And when I say risk, this isn't just something down the road. I mean, right now, as we speak, food is extremely scarce in great sections of Yemen. The ability to get foreign aid in is extremely difficult through the port of Hodeida. And so there's a massive amount of human suffering that Saudi Arabia is involved in and, unfortunately, we are still helping them with.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm going to shift here. One of your assignments in the Senate is to help oversee international development. President Trump wants to cut off regional aid to Central America and Mexico if Mexico can't stop that caravan of migrants fleeing violence. It's tough talk, but could it be effective, like when he coaxed Canada back to the negotiating table for an after-replacement?

MERKLEY: I think one of the most effective things we could do is to recognize that the problems in Central America are fueled by the funds from our drug trade and therefore invest tremendous amount in helping stabilize those nations so that people don't feel so desperate, so oppressed that they are ready to just start walking on a journey north. So I - the way we're approaching Mexico is treating them in a pretty cavalier fashion. I think, diplomatically, it's probably not the most effective way. But asking for their cooperation in working with the details of finding those who are legitimately fearing persecution - that could be helpful. But treat them as a partner, not as a country to be bossed around.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We have only a few seconds left, but, you know, the president says that Democrats want open borders and is pointing to this migrant caravan. What should be done?

MERKLEY: Well, we have a bill we passed in 2013 in the Senate - bipartisan bill - that had massive support for border security. No one in Congress is calling for open borders. That's a fiction of Trump's mind. And it's just too bad that it gets repeated all the time because he says it. It gets - but it is wrong. It is incorrect. There's been bipartisan support for security, at the border security with visas being overstayed. But working together to treat families fleeing persecution with dignity in the - kind of in the philosophy that we have with the Statue of Liberty.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, thank you.

MERKLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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