Across the aisle

‘Where the president can help us is to stand down on the tweets’

Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Lisa Murkowski discuss Cabinet vacancies, force in Syria, sexual harassment reform and other bipartisan concerns

The student-led movement on gun safety is “a significant wakeup,” U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R–Alaska) said at the Women in the Word Summit in New York on Friday. “When you have a 16-year-old say, ‘I’m afraid, but I’m the kid and you’re the adult. You’re the lawmaker adult and we expect some action’ — if that doesn’t motivate us to act to come together for the good of these young people, but really the good of the country, maybe we need to self-examine what we’re doing there.”

Murkowski joined U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D–New York) in a wide-ranging discussion at the summit, delving into issues including chemical weapons in Syria, the nominee for secretary of state, and the need for more women in Congress. They even dished on quarterly bipartisan dinners where women senators privately discuss work and family. “I know that Lisa Murkowski makes a really good berry cobbler,” Gillibrand joked.

Turning to Syria, moderator Andrea Mitchell, chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News, asked the pair of senators about options for the United States in the wake of the latest chemical weapons attack.

Kirsten Gillibrand, U.S. Senator (D-New York), Lisa Murkowski, U.S. Senator (R-Alaska) and Andrea Mitchell at The 2018 Women In The World Summit in New York City.

“I think the reason [Secretary of Defense] Mattis has signaled that we need time is because there’s no plan,” Gillibrand said. “There’s literally no detailed plan. There’s no exit strategy. There’s no articulation of what the approach would be, what the strategy would be. There also isn’t an authorization for use of military force in Syria — the current authorization is based solely on 9/11, to go after al Qaeda and affiliates. So there is no legitimate basis for the president to start a war in Syria.”

She continued, “There’s certainly going to be time for congressional oversight. I know that we’re planning to have hearings next week, which I think are appropriate. But I really am not going to support what the president is signaling because he has absolutely no plan and no strategy about what he intends to do.”

Mitchell asked, “There is no authorization, but what does a president do when he sees another attack—chemical weapons?”

“In fairness to the debate that should go on—must go on—with regards to the authorization of military force, that needs to happen,” Murkowski said. “We in Congress need to have that discussion. Where the president can help us is to stand down on the tweets, because that is not helping us with the seriousness of this.”

(As it turned out, within hours of this discussion, 105 missiles had been rained down on three of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons facilities, under the orders of the commander in chief.)

Both senators have also been personally targeted by President Trump on Twitter. When Murkowski voted against efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, he tweeted: “Senator @lisamurkowski of the Great State of Alaska really let the Republicans, and our country, down yesterday. Too bad!”

When Gillibrand called on the president to resign amid allegations of sexual misconduct, he tweeted, “Lightweight Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a total flunky for Chuck Schumer and someone who would come to my office “begging” for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them), is now in the ring fighting against Trump. Very disloyal to Bill & Crooked-USED!”

On the nomination of Mike Pompeo for secretary of state, Gillibrand said, “I think he is not the right choice to be Secretary of State because of his record. He’s a war hawk. He supported torture in the past. I don’t think he can be the face of diplomacy effectively. So I have concerns about that nomination. You add to that [John] Bolton as national security advisor, you have a hawk among hawks there. I just don’t know how President Trump is going to be able to receive information about diplomatic and political solutions in all the turmoil we have around the world. I’m really concerned about his choices.”

Mitchell countered, “He was elected. Is he not entitled … to his own choice of Cabinet in terms of the ideology?”

“I think he certainly is entitled to put his nominations forward,” Murkowski said. “Our role, then, in the Senate is to provide for that confirmation or in certain cases deny that. But I think what is imperative—whether you would be a no vote or a yes vote—is that we move quickly. We need a secretary of state. We have to have not only the secretary level filled, but we have other offices within the Department of State that are left vacant. We have ambassadors to key countries that have not yet been filled. So when you think about the role of diplomacy and the role of the secretary of state—he or she is one person, but making sure that is rounded out has got to be an imperative for us.”

Kirsten Gillibrand, U.S. Senator (D-New York) and Lisa Murkowski, U.S. Senator (R-Alaska) at The 2018 Women In The World Summit in New York City.

Murkowski cited the length of the nomination process as a hurdle. “When we decide we’re going to elongate the process, which is already long enough, you do have a vacancy in government,” she said, noting that she wishes the Senate could “get back to that more collaborative nature” in its approach to governing. Gillibrand interjected, “I have a solution to her problem: Elect more women!”

Mitchell cited studies showing that women in Congress get more done by working together than their male counterparts, drawing applause from the crowd. Gillibrand noted that she had been collaborating with Murkowski ever since she joined the Senate, crediting Murkowski with helping her to pass the 9/11 health bill and to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the military.

The two senators also discussed a bipartisan bill that has been proposed to reform how sexual harassment is handled in Congress. Under the current rules, which Murkowski called “arcane,” there is a month-long “cooling-off period” before an employee can file a sexual harassment claim.

On the question of whether President Trump might fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, Gillibrand said, “The only way Mueller could be fired is for cause.” She noted that a bill is in the works to ensure that in the event Mueller were fired, a judge would determine whether cause existed: “That is a bipartisan bill that I’m hopeful can get a vote on sometime in the next week or so.”

“It’s unfortunate that we’re even having to have this discussion—that we’re even having to think about legislation that would put the brakes on something like this,” Murkowski said. “I think it is so important, it is so imperative, that this investigation be allowed to go forward.”

Watch highlights and the full video of the conversation at the top of this story.

Additional reporting by Marion Bradford.

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