Schumer Floor Remarks On Escalating Tensions With Iran, The Need For Debate On Saudi Arms Sales, Calling For An Investigation Into The Trump Administration’s Delay In Putting Harriet Tubman On The $20 Note, And Urging Leader McConnell To Allow Votes on Background Check Legislation And Election Security

June 20, 2019

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer today spoke on the Senate floor regarding escalating tensions in Iran, the need for at least a debate on U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, his request to for an investigation into the Trump Administration’s delay in putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 note, and urging Leader McConnell to allow votes on legislation to close loopholes in our background check system and improve election security.  Below are his remarks which can also be found here.

Over the past few months, tensions with Iran have escalated. There have been a series of attacks on tankers in the Gulf region and this morning, it was reported that Iran has shot down a U.S. drone. These events are deeply concerning; all the more so because the Trump Administration has not explained to Congress or to the American people how it views these events, how it plans to respond, or most importantly, what the broader strategy is for confronting Iran.

President Trump left a diplomatic agreement with Iran a little more than a year ago. It was obvious to anyone who even had a cursory knowledge of Iran that it would create consequences. With that decision, there’s a course for conflict, a conflict whose purpose or strategy has never been articulated to the American people.

The president says on TV, ‘It’s a much better Iran than when I took office.’ Well, they were not building nuclear weapons—and I opposed the Iran agreement, as you know—but they were not building nuclear weapons. They were proceeding along the path of the agreement, and the president, as he seems to, just gets a bug in his head, says something in the campaign without thinking, and then upends foreign policy. Another example of chaos in this administration. But he’s done that. And so now the issue is: what is our strategy to deal with the consequences? The American people have to know this. We have seen too many conflicts in the Middle East escalate into war—escalate into a ten-year war. The American people are not for spending a fortune, and more importantly lives of Americans, overseas. They want us to focus here at home. But the sort of un-thought-out, unexplained adventurism of the president is the wrong way to go, and could lead to severe consequences.

And I must say, even in closed-door briefings with senators, the administration doesn’t spell out a strategy. This is not how democracy is supposed to work, and this is not how even the CEO of a major company should behave—with no articulated strategy. The president needs to explain to the American people why he is driving us towards another endless conflict in the Middle East.

On Saudi Arabia, another matter concerning this administration’s foreign policy: today the Senate will vote on resolutions of disapproval for arms sales to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. These 22 resolutions (introduced by Senator Menendez) would block billions of dollars in military sales, including the transfer of tens of thousands of precision-guided munitions that the Saudis have previously used to bomb innocent civilians in Yemen.

The timing of these votes is significant. Last night, the United Nations issued a report that documented evidence that the Saudis meticulously planned the murder of U.S. resident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi and “forensically,” disposed of the evidence. According to the report, the Saudis referred to Mr. Khashoggi as a “sacrificial animal” and that dismembering the body would “be easy.” How gross, how cruel. How…beyond words. And we are going to blithely go along and let the Saudis continue? They’re an ally, everyone knows that, but that doesn’t mean you let allies do the most horrible things and just treat it as if nothing happened.

But in the wake of such monstrosity, the Trump Administration is proposing another round of billions of dollars in arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Well, we should at least have a debate about whether or not that’s the right course of action. Leader McConnell was on the floor saying ‘What are the Democrats doing here?’ We’re debating, Mr. Leader. You have one view, I may have another, but the American people are entitled to a debate on this issue. That’s what the law provides, and that is the tool we use, one of the few tools we have to actually cause debate in this chamber, which the leader, with his legislative graveyard, has assiduously avoided—with his reducing the amount of time that we can talk about and vet nominees, turning this chamber into a graveyard, which the American people despise. But here we have an opportunity to debate, and even here the leader seems to be decrying that fact.

In my view, the administration is claiming that emergency powers allow them to circumvent Congressional review of these arms sales. That premise must be rejected. It sets a dangerous precedent for congressional oversight of future arms sales, and can lead to renewed conflicts. We are also discussing that, parenthetically, in relation to Iran: should Congress have some say there? And you’ll hear more from me later about that.

The very least Congress can do is to debate the merits of sending Saudi Arabia billions of dollars’ worth of military technology it may use not to confront Iran but to perpetuate one of the largest humanitarian catastrophes of our generation. Saudi Arabia must be held accountable for its human rights abuses, in Yemen and the grotesque murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

More than three years ago, then-Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced he had ordered an accelerated redesign of the $20 bill, with the new design to feature Harriet Tubman’s portrait on the face of the bill. The design was set to be released in 2020, the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote, a fitting tribute to an extraordinary American and an extraordinary New Yorker.

There are no women, there are no people of color on our paper currency today, even though they make up a significant majority of our population, and there haven’t been for more than a century. The plan to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 note was a long overdue way to recognize that disparity, and rectify it.

But shortly after the Trump Administration took office, all mentions of the Tubman $20 bill were deleted from the Treasury Department’s website without any explanation. Then, Secretary Mnuchin testified that a decision had been made to delay the release of the $20 note until 2028, and the Treasury refused to confirm that Harriet Tubman’s image would ever appear on it.

The official word from the White House was that the delay was required to accommodate “anti-counterfeiting measures,” but if you believe that, I have a bridge I can sell you. It is simply not credible that with all the resources of the Treasury Department, a decade or more could be required to produce a $20 bill. A century ago, New Yorkers built the Empire State Building in little over a year. Surely, the 21st Century Treasury Department can redesign a bill in a reasonable period of time. The questions as to why the White House, the Treasury, maybe even the president delayed this are looming and real, given the president’s attitude towards women and minorities.

So I have asked the Department of Treasury Inspector General to launch an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the Treasury’s decision. The official reasons given are not credible, and the whole thing smacks of politics. President Trump has referred to efforts to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill as “pure political correctness.”  To recognize more than half the people in our society, to recognize the more than twenty-five percent of Americans who are people of color, all of whom have worked so hard to strive for this great country—and that’s political correctness? What is wrong with this president, and what instincts is he appealing to? What bad instincts is he appealing to? Seems to be his practice, his way, his M.O. So, among the questions the Inspector General should examine is what role President Trump played in this apparent effort to renege on the Treasury’s 2016 commitment to honor Harriet Tubman.

Whatever the president’s sentiments towards Jackson, there is no reason to reverse the original Treasury Department decision to recognize Harriet Tubman’s historic legacy on the $20 bill, which would still feature our seventh president on the reverse side.

I hope the Inspector General will get to the bottom of this, but in the meantime, I hope that President Trump himself is asked to answer for these delays. It would truly be a sordid state of affairs if the president or his team, for political reasons, interfered with and infected the process for designing American currency.

Now, background checks. Well, in the early hours on Monday, a heavily armed man approached the Federal Building in downtown Dallas and started shooting. This was a civilian, walking into the middle of an American city with military-grade weapons, a mask, body armor, prepared to inflict the maximum level of damage possible. It is to the credit of the incredible first responders that this incident did not result in the loss of innocent life. But it is remarkable that events like this now seem all too routine and so the news cycle barely covers them before moving on.

Barely a week goes by without an incident like this somewhere in America. We are the only nation in the developed world where these kinds of things, these horrible things happen with regularity. Virginia Beach. Highlands Ranch. Poway. Aurora, Illinois. All examples of shootings that have taken place this year alone.

Later today, I will join with several of my colleagues from the House and the Senate—including our former colleague, the great Gabby Giffords—to urge Leader McConnell to bring background check legislation to the floor of the Senate. It has been 114 days since the House passed the measure, which more than 90% of Americans support, including more than 80% of Republicans and the majority of gun owners.

But it seems that Leader McConnell, however, has set aside another plot in his legislative graveyard for this potentially life-saving bill. For too long, the gun lobby has reflexively opposed gun safety reforms, even the most obvious and non-controversial reforms like background checks, like closing loopholes in background checks. For too long, the Republican Majority has marched in lockstep with them.

The American people are demanding we do these rational acts. The House has passed it overwhelmingly with a bipartisan vote. Where are our Republicans? Are they still cowering before the NRA? I’d remind them that the NRA is a lot weaker than it was a few years ago. It’s time to do the right thing and stop being scared. Let’s move this bill to the floor. Let Leader McConnell finally let us debate an issue long overdue.

Finally, as we continue to debate the NDAA, I urge Leader McConnell once again to allow and support amendments to protect our elections from future attacks.

Election security is a national security issue of the highest urgency—there aren’t two sides to this debate. No one can defend doing nothing as the Russians—and maybe the Chinese, the Iranians, the North Koreans—mess with the wellspring of our democracy, our elections. As we have seen time and again, from reports by the FBI, by the intelligence agencies, the Mueller Report, our elections came under attack in the last presidential election from Russia. FBI Director Wray has warned us that they’re coming for us again. And he thinks it could very well be worse than 2016.

Leader McConnell won’t deny that this is true—so what are we waiting for? We know the threat is there, we know we can take steps to minimize it, so why won’t Leader McConnell let us act?

We have several options for legislative action, many of them bipartisan. People on both sides of the aisle care about this issue and have worked on legislation, Democrats and Republicans together—something not done frequently enough around here. And Leader McConnell just sits on these bills. Last week, Senator Warner asked unanimous consent to simply say that the FBI should be informed when a foreign power tries to influence an election. I believe Senator Blumenthal will try to do the same thing today. Is Leader McConnell going to instruct one of his Republicans to block it again? Will he have the courage to block it himself if he wants it blocked? The logical solution is to let us debate the bills.

If Leader McConnell will not cooperate on this matter, Democrats are going to stand up for our democracy—on our own if we have to. We’re going to ask unanimous consent to allow debate on these bills. We will insist on amendments to the NDAA—Leader McConnell has suggested that he wants an open amendment process, so let’s press the matter. And we will continue to push for more election security funding as part of a deal on budget caps.

There aren’t two sides on this one, there’s just not. There is only one right answer—and it’s to take action to safeguard our election. I urge Leader McConnell to let us move on this issue. Stop stalling, stop obstructing. The legislative graveyard is full enough as it is. Let’s come together, Democrats and Republicans, to protect our grand, imperiled democracy.