Wyden: Public will have some access to Russia inquiry
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden says he will use "every tool at my disposal," including open hearings and unclassified reports, to let the public know what went on between President Donald Trump's campaign and Russian officials.
The Oregon Democrat, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, made that pledge to about 1,500 people at a town hall meeting Saturday (Feb. 18) in the Oregon City High School gym.
The committee announced the investigation more than a month ago. But it took on added dimensions this past week with the forced resignation of Trump's national security adviser, retired Gen. Michael Flynn, over his pre-inaugural conversations with the Russian ambassador about U.S. sanctions imposed by then-President Barack Obama — and Flynn's failure to fully disclose them to Vice President Mike Pence.
Wyden said he insisted on some open hearings, subpoena authority and unclassified reports as part of the investigation, although the committee usually proceeds behind closed doors.
"I am committed to making sure this is not swept under the rug," he said to applause. "In America, the truth always comes out. This goes right to the heart of the legitimacy of American government."
Jim Bernard, the new chairman of Clackamas County commissioners who introduced Wyden, said afterward he was not surprised by the big turnout at a venue planned for 2,500.
"Seeing all of you people gives me a lot of hope," said Bernard, whose position is nonpartisan but who is a registered Democrat.
More on Russia
Wyden is the chief sponsor of a bill, which failed to advance before the Nov. 8 election, to require presidents and presidential nominees to disclose their tax returns. Except for Trump, all have done so voluntarily for 40 years.
"Tax returns don't lie," he told the crowd. "The numbers cannot be manipulated without that person incurring legal liabilities."
Trump said Feb. 16 he has no business dealings with Russia.
Wyden also believes a special prosecutor eventually will be named, given Attorney General Jeff Sessions' early support of Trump while still a senator.
Afterward, Wyden said he was not surprised the question about Russia came up several times.
"It really transcends everything else," he said. "It speaks to whether people can have confidence in their government, whether they think their government is credible and goes essentially to whether people feel their government is legitimate."
The question was raised first by Dianna Smiley of Portland, who is part of the movement known as Citizens Indivisible.
"It's frustrating, because he can't really tell us what he is specifically going to do, in part because the committee is restricted and it's classified information. But it's clearly on lots of people's minds," she said afterward.
"I think we need more answers. We need to know that it's going on and what people are saying. That's the only way we're going to be able to understand who is running our government."
Some Democrats and others favor an investigation by an independent commission, instead of congressional committees where Republicans are the majority. But Wyden said such commissions, such as the one that investigated the 2001 terrorist attacks on the East Coast, take a long time to gear up.
Saying yes and no
Wyden, 67, was re-elected Nov. 8 with 1.1 million votes for a fourth full term — he won his seat in a special election in January 1996 — while Trump lost Oregon to Clinton.
His stance toward Trump, who has been president four weeks, was less accommodating at his 790th town hall than during a round of similar meetings in mid-January.
"I have just been thrilled, as I have gotten around Oregon, about how many people are getting involved who have never been involved before in issues and policies," he said.
He plans a similar meeting at noon Feb. 25 at David Douglas High School in Portland.
Like his Democratic colleague, Jeff Merkley, Wyden urged people to call family and friends in congressional districts and states where Democrats or Republicans may be undecided about specific issues pending in Congress.
"I'm telling you there is not a cookie-cutter plan" for Democrats to regain the presidency, congressional majorities, or states — Oregon being just one of six where Democrats control governorships and legislatures.
But Wyden said it was not enough for people to protest Trump and Republican congressional majorities
"The core of your question is not just saying what you are against, it's saying what you are for," he told one questioner. "We need to be speaking out, pushing back, and offering smart alternatives."
But Wyden, the top Democrat on the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, said he would resist Republican efforts on several issues:
• Rewriting the federal tax code to give more breaks to high-income earners: "It does not get any more progressive than fixing this tax system, which works great for people born on third base and think they've hit a triple, but does nor work well for working people."
• Converting Medicare, the federal program of health insurance for people 65 and older, into fixed vouchers to let people shop for private coverage: "I am not interested in privatization or vouchers," but refocusing on care for chronic conditions such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
• Doing away with the Affordable Care Act, Obama's signature health care law: "The Trump majority in Congress is going to have a lot of trouble with their agenda. Their numbers just don't add up."