Sen. Murphy weighs in on Russia probe, North Korea tensions

New London — To Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., "one of the most bizarre, unexplainable things happening" in the Trump administration is what he calls the "open warfare" against the State Department.

He is not satisfied with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's explanation of doing more with less and the argument that the State Department is bloated, considering a hiring freeze remained there after it was lifted from other departments.

And Murphy indicated this is good for Russia.

"If I was Russia, and I was running U.S. foreign policy, I would be dismantling the State Department," Murphy told The Day on Tuesday. He said he's not a conspiracy theorist and is not alleging that's what is happening, but noted that the State Department "provides the most significant daily pushback against the Russian government."

Murphy sat down with the editorial board at The Day on Tuesday afternoon for a wide-ranging conversation that touched on threats from North Korea, defense spending, gun control and the tax bill, which he feels has a 50-50 chance of passing.

Murphy is not alone in his views on State Department staffing. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., has said concern is bipartisan, while Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., sent a letter to Tillerson on Nov. 15 expressing "deep reservations" on the failure to replace foreign service personnel.

Speaking on special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, Murphy commented, "I hope that there's not evidence presented to Congress that would warrant impeachment. I don't wish for that, on the president or on the country, and I think it's hard to predict what he's going to deliver."

He added that the pace of the investigation suggests it is not even close to being finished, and that while he is not somebody who celebrates indictments, he wants to get to the truth.

Trump spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin for about an hour on Tuesday in a phone call that focused on Syria, national news outlets reported.

Murphy said of Trump, "I have no way to unpack his relationship with Putin. I mean, he has delivered Putin much of what he wants. He's given him a weakened State Department. He's offered no substantive pushback on his interference in the 2016 election. He's outsourced the problem of Syria to Moscow."

Murphy sees Russia's influence throughout the world expanding by the day, he said, noting that he doesn't understand what the United States is getting out of a relationship with Russia right now.

In terms of legislation, Murphy is co-sponsor of the Fix NICS Act of 2017, which aims to better enforce current law on the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. In the wake of the Sutherland Springs shooting, he is co-sponsoring the bill with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. According to Cornyn's office, the bill has the support of the National Rifle Association, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the Fraternal Order of Police and more.

In the last few months, Murphy also has sponsored bills to prohibit the government from barring entry of refugees based on country of origin, to provide federal funding for addiction research, and to prohibit use of funds "for kinetic military operations in North Korea absent an imminent threat to the United States without express congressional authorization."

The last arose from concern over Trump having a low bar for what would prompt him to act against the country.

Murphy noted that Trump administration officials have suggested that mere possession of an intercontinental ballistic missile-mounted nuclear weapon would in and of itself constitute a nuclear threat.

The bill does not attempt to define "imminent threat," which Murphy characterized as "a very loosey-goosey word that means something different to me than it does to you."

Murphy has become something of a rising star in the Democratic Party and one of the faces of "the resistance" in national media outlets. But he made clear he is not the kind of Democrat who refuses to cooperate with Trump on anything.

"I abhor much of Trump's politics, but if he were to reach out to me on something that would make my constituents' lives better, I would be eager to work with him," Murphy told The Day.

Despite his repeated assertions to the contrary, outlets from The Washington Post to CNN to Mother Jones have put Murphy on lists of potential presidential candidates for 2020.

The senator reiterated to The Day on Tuesday, "I'm not interested in running for president. I'm interested in being a great senator from Connecticut, and I think this is an exceptional moment in time right now, where you need to step up and show real leadership, given the stakes."

e.moser@theday.com

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