U.S. Sen. Wyden on the issues

During his interview with The Bulletin, Sen. Ron Wyden spoke on a wide range of topics:

Senate Budget Resolution proposed by the GOP: “I voted against this mockery in committee, and I will vote against it again on the Senate floor. It’s the job of Congress to fund programs that move our country forward, not waste time devising a lopsided ledger to squander taxpayer dollars and betray our core American values.”

Firefighting funding: “For six years, I have proposed that the top 1 or 2 percent of wildfires be paid for with the disaster fund, instead of Forest Service budget. I think this may be a good news story soon.”

Gun control: “I don’t think you should be able to get a gun if you have been convicted of domestic violence. I think we should have a sensible background check system. I’d like to see both sides come together on banning the bump stocks. I don’t think those are violations of the Second Amendment, it’s common sense.”

Voting machine security: “I wrote the companies that manufacture the voting machines. It is really stunning that no one has asked them any questions. Do you have cybersecurity officials? Do you conduct cyber security audits? I want answers, and I am going to use that information in our investigations.”

Proposed 11 percent cut in the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF): “It is critical to protecting public lands and providing access to outdoor recreation for Americans. Oregon has received $382.7 million in LWCF funding since the program began in 1965.”

On Republican primary challenges: “Republicans are fighting among themselves. (Former Trump policy adviser) Steve Bannon is talking about challenging incumbents in primaries. If the Republicans continue to do this much bloodletting, they are doing themselves in.”

His bill requiring presidents to release their tax returns: “I have over 20 senators — no Republicans so far — who have signed on.”

Trump administration delays on filling federal posts in Oregon: “When you don’t have positions filled with people with expertise, or don’t have the ear of their boss in Washington, they freeze up. They don’t get decisions made.”

On Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, the only GOP member of the Oregon delegation: “We don’t always agree....When I need to talk to Congressman Walden, he has always been accessible.”

EUGENE — Ron Wyden probes his salad with a fork, turning the dark green leaves over and moving the vegetables around.

His normal patter, rapid and shouted an octave higher than normal to be heard over the Friday night beer-and-fried oyster chugging crowd at the Wild Duck Cafe, stops cold.

The senior U.S. senator from Oregon, known for his verbal precision bombing in Washington, has no words for a moment. The void fills with noise of the Dodgers baseball playoff game on a huge flat-screen television over his shoulder.

“I have to choose my words carefully,” Wyden finally says, raising his head and locking eyes. “I have a motto: ‘break no oath, share no secrets, ask tough questions.’”

So, no, the Democrat isn’t going to tell what Jared Kushner said to the Senate Intelligence Committee behind closed doors, even as his face wrinkles up into a rueful smile at the memory of the meeting with President Trump’s son-in-law-turned-adviser.

But during a wide-ranging interview last week over dinner across the street from the University of Oregon, where he went to law school, Wyden spoke of his friendships with Republicans, his three — going on four — decades in D.C., partisan rancor, health care, gun control, the Trump White House and his life.

Wyden’s sharpest comments, though, were saved for Kushner, the enigmatic husband of first daughter Ivanka Trump. Wyden speaks of Kushner with a mix of reluctant appreciation, exasperation and distress. Wyden admits that in the showdown with Kushner, the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee was outmaneuvered

“Jared Kushner had a very good lawyer who played us,” Wyden says.

Kushner insisted that he would only testify behind closed doors. After the committee agreed, Wyden says, Kushner made public statements before and after the hearing, saying he and the Trumps did not “rely” on Russian investments.

That put Wyden and the rest of the committee at a disadvantage. If the spin Kushner told in public was different than what he said behind closed doors, the lawmakers were legally bound to zip their lips. If Kushner hadn’t held up his end of the bargain, that didn’t mean the Senate was free to unveil its own version of the meeting.

“I don’t talk about any testimony before the committee behind closed doors,” Wyden says.

But what Kushner said before and since is fair game.

“All I can say is go back and listen to what he said on the White House lawn,” Wyden says. “‘We didn’t rely on the Russians.’ Some lawyer was paid a lot of money to come up with that word, ‘rely.’ The newspaper front pages the next day said ‘Kushner denies Russia tie.’ No. He didn’t say they didn’t seek Russian business or do business with the Russians. They just didn’t” — Wyden draws the word out for effect — “‘rely’ — on it.”

Wyden laces his long fingers in front of him.

“Not from the committee discussions,” Wyden says. “But from newspapers. From television.”

Wyden throws his hands in front of him, palms up.

“We know that Bob Mueller, the independent counsel, has hired 16 lawyers who are experts in financial crime,” he says.

Along with Mueller’s investigation, Wyden says he will prod the Senate to keep digging.

“I am trying, consistent with the rules, to connect the dots,” Wyden says. “Now look at it — all of this is public.”

Wyden goes into a staccato countdown:

“This is the first president in 40 years not to disclose his taxes.”

“His family says the Russians were much of their portfolio when it was hard to get money in 2008, 2009.”

“His tax reform proposal creates a huge new Grand Canyon sized mega-loophole for the wealthy for what are called pass throughs where they get their tax rates reduced.”

“And not pay Social Security or Medicare taxes.”

“Many business reporters — again not speaking from anything else — these pass throughs are the kind of thing the Trump family relies on.”

Wyden takes a fork full of salad and stops in midair.

“Follow the money,” he says.

Wyden is a tough Democratic partisan in the fights with the White House. But his frustration with what the intelligence committee hears behind closed doors and what is spun by those who make speeches or comments afterwards predates the GOP take-over of the White House.

In a 2013 profile, Atlantic magazine told of Wyden’s consternation at the Obama Administration’s handling of intelligence reports.

“The Democratic lawmaker had been carefully balancing two imperatives: his oath as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee to keep the secrets conveyed in confidants to the committee — and his larger commitment to the American people, who were being fed a diet of soothing lies,” the magazine wrote of Wyden.

Wyden was elected to Congress in 1980, a watershed year for Republicans — the other guys. He’s been in the majority and in the minority party. He’s seen the Reagan Revolution, the Persian Gulf War, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.” He moved to the Senate when veteran Republican Sen. Bob Packwood’s career imploded in scandal and has been there through the Bush-Gore recounts, 9/11, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Great Recession, Obama and Obamacare, and the election of Donald Trump as president.

While the last event is the most unusual of his tenure, Wyden says he has learned not to panic. Things change ,and he believes the American system will endure.

“There is so much chaos, it seems impossible to even keep track of it all,” Wyden says. “All I can do is be very thorough. I am going to pursue accountability.”

While Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee have said they believe they can “wrap up” the investigation by the end of the year, Wyden disagrees.

“There should be no arbitrary date for when this is done,” Wyden says. “The investigations need to go where they lead. With the Trump administration, the ball is in their court.”

Wyden has no plans on leaving the game anytime soon. Once rumored to be a candidate for secretary of Health and Human Services under the Obama administration, Wyden says he is focused on “the best job in the world,” as senator from Oregon. He remains popular in the state — even in heavily Republican areas. Deschutes County voted for Republicans for every national and statewide office in 2016 — except U.S. Senate. Wyden received 52 percent of the vote in a county that went for Donald Trump for president and Bud Pierce for governor. Wyden out-polled Trump by 4,400 votes.

Although he came to Capitol Hill at 31, Wyden, now 68, says he isn’t going to talk about whether he will seek re-election in 2022. Oregon has traditionally relied on congressional seniority in Washington to give it an outsized influence. Besides, at his age, Wyden isn’t even in the top 25 list of oldest senators.

As he puts on his coat to leave and shakes hands with some in the restaurant who recognize him, Walden talks of getting back to work.

“Right now,” he says, “I have my hands full.”

— Reporter: 541-525-5280, gwarner@bendbulletin.com

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