Jeff Merkley keeps a low profile. The junior senator from Oregon may not have made a whole lot of headlines during his first decade in Congress, but he has quietly assembled a sterling progressive record, staking out early positions on issues that are rapidly gaining traction with the Democratic base. In 2016, Merkley was the only senator to endorse his colleague Bernie Sanders for president. Last year, he introduced a bill to transition to 100 percent renewable energy in the next several decades, similar to the plan that rising star Alexandria Ocasio Cortez campaigned on. Last month, Merkley was the first member of Congress to show up at a detention center near the U.S.-Mexican border and demand to see immigrant kids who were being separated from their parents under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance policy.” The visit represented a dramatic shift in public awareness around the issue, and prompted a swift, powerful backlash that paved the way for Trump’s executive order to bring the practice to an end. Merkley spoke to Rolling Stone about his decision to go to the border, his fears about the climate crisis, the upcoming Supreme Court vacancy and his 2020 ambitions.
Your trip to a Texas detention center helped raise awareness of the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents. What made you go?
I started to see references to a new policy of taking children away from their parents. I thought, “This can’t be right.” I just couldn’t envision that any leadership team of the United States would think that this was a good idea. I really went down there with the belief that I was going to discover that there wasn’t a significant change in policy or in practice. What I immediately found, in my very first stop at the processing center, was absolutely shocking.
What did you see?
I stopped in front of a cage that had a large number of young boys lining up by height in preparation for going through a food line. The smallest was just knee-high to a grasshopper, maybe 4 or 5 years old. Many of the folks in that line were young boys who had been taken away from their parents just within the preceding hours. [I realized] this is totally real. This is completely happening. It just overwhelmed me what a dark and evil thing was happening.
Do you have any confidence that these 2,000-plus children will be reunited with their families?
Here’s the challenge: Some parents are in the Department of Homeland Security’s protection. Other adults have been transferred to the care of the Justice Department. And then you have children who are in the Department of Health and Human Services, and within that the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Three big bureaucracies where people are split between different computer systems, different procedures, different software.
I asked them there at that processing center, “I’ve heard stories that it’s very hard for parents to find children and for children to find parents.” They said, “Oh no, it works really well. No problem. Just so easy.” Of course that was a complete, total lie. It’s been extremely difficult for people to navigate between these systems.
What do you think the president failed to understand about this policy decision and how it was going to be received?
The president has been in a process of dehumanizing those fleeing persecution from abroad. And in his process of dehumanizing immigrants, I think that he reached a point that he succeeded enough that he [believed the] public won’t care, because they’re not even recognizable as human beings. That was his goal: to just degrade immigrants. And the American people are not having it. They are not having it.
Instead of separating children and parents, the Trump administration is now detaining families together. Is that any better?
This strategy – the internment camp strategy – is absolutely wrong. Our last internment camp strategy in World War II was completely wrong, morally bankrupt, not acceptable under any vision of morality or religious tradition. And at the core, they’re trying to do the same thing. And it’s still completely wrong.
President Trump has said Congress could fix this situation by passing immigration legislation. Are you at all optimistic Congress might do that?
No, I am not optimistic. You have a president who wants to use the suffering of children for political leverage, and that is completely unacceptable. This was a problem created directly by administrative policy. All of the suffering is a direct result of Donald Trump’s action. He can end it in a moment. He can restore the case management programs that he eliminated. There’s an inspector general’s report that says 100 percent of those in that case management program showed up for their hearing. A hundred percent! And he ended the program.
He has chosen a very, very dark path. America is saying, “No way.” And we’re going to keep fighting and keep applying the pressure. The president started this. He needs to end it.
When Neil Gorsuch was nominated to the Supreme Court, you protested by speaking on the Senate floor for 15 hours straight. Did the court’s decisions this term confirm your fears?
Yes. We’re seeing 5-4 decisions. They would be 4-4 decisions – you might even say they are 4-4 decisions plus one illegitimate Supreme Court justice in a stolen seat. That seat was stolen specifically to keep Citizens United in place, the ability to have billionaires spend hundreds of millions of dollars to control congress. The Koch Brother cartel succeeded in winning control in 2014 through the use of Citizens United and they’ve run the Senate since.
You were the only senator to endorse Bernie Sanders in 2016. Do you have a favorite for 2020? Are you considering running yourself?
I’m very much focused on 2018 and [winning back] a majority in the Senate, which is a difficult thing to achieve, but there is a narrow path to it. Think about how 51 seats could stop the packing of the courts. Fifty-one seats could stop the next Betsy DeVos, who wants to undo public education. Fifty-one seats could stop the next Scott Pruitt, who is a human wrecking ball striking down every effort to have clean air and clean water. Fifty-one seats could stop the next Mick Mulvaney, who wants to unleash every predatory force in financial issues from payday loans to mortgages. That’s the focus for this year. I am exploring the possibility of 2020, but my primary focus is on 2018.
There’s more and more news about Scott Pruitt every day — what do you think people should really be paying attention to?
Clearly, Scott Pruitt is unfit for office. He’s personally bent every possible personnel rule in terms of personal aggrandizement and inappropriate use of money. But the much bigger issue is the things he’s doing that decrease the health of Americans: striking down and not pursuing violations of environmental laws, doing everything he can to loosen rules to allow more lead in the air, more mercury in the air, more particulates in the air. The list goes on and on and on.
There are a lot of Sanders-inspired progressives running this year, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York.
Her campaign was so powerful. Representative democracy is designed to have people like her – people who understand their issues and will advocate fiercely for them. She gave that opportunity to the community and they seized it.
She campaigned on a plan for getting us to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. You’ve introduced legislation to get there by 2050. Is ‘35 realistic?
The faster we can do it, the better. We need grassroots action to drive this. And then hopefully that grassroots action will also build a constituency to eventually reclaim the House and Senate, reclaim the Republican party, where every single member in the senate is so cowed by the pressure of the fossil fuel industry, they can’t even raise their voice and recognize what’s happening to the world.
There have been indications that the economy might be heading toward recession. Meanwhile Congress just rolled back banking rules put in place after the last recession. Should we, uh, be concerned about that?
It’s extremely disturbing. It took enormous effort to shut down the Wall Street casino turning our banks into big, highly leveraged betting parlors that placed our economy at risk. If you want to take high-risk bets on the future prices of anything, whether it’s stocks or currencies or so forth – if you want to have those bets, do them in a hedge fund. Take your money, throw it into a hedge fund and place your bets. But keep it out of our banking system. We need the banking system to be boring.
What do Democrats need to talk about more?
Health care. Here’s what’s going on: the sabotage of the health care system is driving rates up in a crazy fashion. People understand this just from the bills that they’re getting. The drug companies are exploiting the current structure in America, where Medicare can’t negotiate the price. They charge outrageous amounts of money so investors are buying companies and raising the price of a key medicine 10 times or 20 times.
You can stand in a room and ask how many people have a preexisting condition, and at least half of the people over 50 are going to stand up. And then ask how many have a family member, and virtually everybody in the room is going to stand up. One of the fundamental rights that was embedded in Obamacare was that if you have a preexisting condition, you’re still part of the insurance pool – you can buy a policy at the same price as everyone else. That’s incredibly important to the success of the health care system. Trump promised he wasn’t going to destroy it, and now he’s destroying it.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.