U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden fielded wide-ranging questions from students and community members at Dufur School Tuesday, and in response to one, said attorney general nominee William Barr considers presidents “royalty” and above the law.
“In his actual own words, he pretty much thinks the president is royalty,” Wyden said of Barr at the town hall meeting. He said if Barr is confirmed, he would be voting against the confirmation.
A questioner, Mark Radabaugh, asked if Barr could be made to swear an oath to release the findings of the special counsel investigation led by Robert Muller, which is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and any possible links or coordination between President Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russians.
He said the attorney general takes an oath of office, which is a pledge to follow laws. Wyden said on the key issue of whether he would make the report public, “he backed away.”
Noting he was ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, he said, “On my watch, I will not let Robert Muller’s report be swept under the rug.” The comment drew applause.
He said later that “this administration really has taken this question of presidential power to a completely new level.”
On the partial government shutdown, the result of a stalemate over $5.7 billion in funding for 234 miles of border wall, Wyden described how it unfolded.
The Senate passed a short-term funding bill without funding for a border wall, with Vice President Mike Pence’s backing, with plans to debate immigration issues later. In a surprise move, President Donald Trump didn’t sign it after “a bunch of people on the talk shows … said it was horrible,” Wyden said.
Wyden said he feels “very strongly about border security,” and “I’ve voted for a lot of money for border security.” Over the years he’s voted for $100 billion in border patrol staffing, technology like radar and drones, and fortified fencing.
He said Trump’s proposed border barrier was an inefficient use of money.
“You’ve got to stop people at [legal] entry points, that’s really the key. That’s what the experts say,” he said. He said people whose job it is to prevent illegal entry into the U.S. “don’t think the wall is the way to go.”
He said he was “definitely in support of strong border security.” But “are we going to support what works or are we going to support what sounds good?”
He said the wall became so important to Trump because it drew applause at his campaign rallies.
He asked anybody who was Native American in the audience of 150 to raise their hand. Six did. He said of the rest, “Odds are overwhelmingly you are part of the immigrant experience.”
He said, “I think America is better and stronger” because of immigrants.
Wyden’s own parents fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s. His great-uncle Max was one of the last people gassed at Auschwitz.
On the partial government shutdown, Wyden said it was “really hurting Oregon,” and wasn’t just something happening in Chicago or Miami, but right in Wasco County, including at the Barlow Ranger District office in Dufur. The U.S. Forest Service office has been closed since the shutdown began Dec. 22.
He added, “The president said point blank, ‘I own the shutdown.’ He said it on TV.”
He spoke of U.S. Coast Guardsmen who were doing lifesaving work without pay and turning to food banks. He said they have bills to pay and should be paid for working.
He believed a bill to fund government would pass overwhelmingly, but “we’ve got to get a chance.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, has prevented four such bills from reaching the Senate floor.
Wyden said he’s been in Oregon counties that voted for Trump, and “people want the government open first,” before talks on immigration issues. “The citizens have had it; they want the government working.”
He said he supports “stronger fencing. I’ve voted for it.”
A student asked how Wyden planned to eliminate the $22 trillion national debt. He responded that Medicare, the medical insurance for those 65 and over, was the overarching issue.
He said 10,000 Americans turn 65 every day, and are guaranteed medical coverage. The swelling Medicare enrollment “will happen for decades to come.”
He said if anyone talked about reducing the debt but didn’t talk about Medicare, “they’re not on the level, folks.” He added, “Healthcare is gobbling up everything in sight.”
Medicare has expanded coverage as the American population has aged. Wyden got a bill passed in 2018 that allowed more telemedicine, more care at home, and more preventative work to keep seniors healthier.
A student asked if bump stocks had been declared illegal. They are a device that uses the motion of kickback to repeatedly fire a gun. The Justice Department in December said it would ban them.
Wyden wanted to give it a rural context, and cited a girl at a Hood River County town hall meeting last year who drew applause when she said that she and her fellow rural students grew up around guns and used them all the time, but had “had it with gun violence.”
He later invited the girl to testify before the Senate, which she did.
The girl said that she wasn’t against guns, but that they were getting in the hands of the wrong people.
Wyden said it made sense to keep guns from those convicted of domestic violence, the mentally ill, and those on the terror watch list. “I don’t think we want them to have guns, and I don’t think that’s a violation of the Second Amendment.”
He said, “I really think that we can have an added layer of safety” that included practical steps like background checks.
He said his late brother was a schizophrenic, and his family worried daily that he would harm himself or others.
He said he thought young people in rural areas would be key to advancing gun control.
But one student asked Wyden why he voted to limit ammunition magazines to 10 rounds. She said shooting for sport was fun, and “it’s really a pain to have to reload all the time.”
Wyden said the amendments to the U.S. Constitution aren’t absolute. For example, freedom of speech doesn’t extend to falsely yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater.
He said he didn’t think common sense gun control measures change the right to bear arms. “I’m not going to take away your ability to have that enjoyable experience,” he said.
Another commenter asked why infrastructure improvements weren’t done when money was cheap to borrow.
Wyden said such a measure was passed by the Senate, but Trump said, “’Nothing doing; we’re going to use the money for tax cuts.’”
Wyden said “not a single successful person in Oregon” asked him to lower taxes. “Yet that’s what we did… for the people at the top,” and borrowed $1.7 trillion to do it.
Mosier Mayor Arlene Burns asked about getting the needed infrastructure on highways so people could charge electric cars. She said the economy needed to shift to clean energy.
Wyden said that fits in precisely with federal legislation he is getting ready to introduce that would scrap all 44 current energy-related tax breaks, most of which are “monuments to dirty relics of yesteryear.”
In its place would be just three tax incentives: for clean electricity; clean transportation fuel; and performance-based tax incentives for energy-efficient homes and office buildings.
He proposed to “get Congress off the carbon habit.”