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Tonko tries to remain above the fray as Washington burns

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Tonko tries to remain above the fray as Washington burns

Photos by Thom Williams 

Washington is burning. Donald Trump’s nascent presidency has turned into a seemingly endless series of scandals and crises, created and perpetuated by the president in his need to address the public via Twitter with whatever message strikes his fancy—despite the narrative his aides have already set in place.

In various accounts, journalists and congressional staffers in DC have characterized Washington as essentially paralyzed due to an administration that has yet to fill basic vacancies, communicate simple policies and priorities or construct a basic agenda.

Amid the tumult, The Alt sat down with Rep. Paul Tonko, a Democrat now in his fith term in Congress, to discuss the events in Washington and, to the extent Trump’s behavior did not completely capture everyone’s energy and attention for the foreseeable future, the lawmaker’s legislative priorities. Tonko currently represents the 20th Congressional District, which includes Albany, Schenectady and Troy.

Had any of Trump’s actions to date, we asked—including his firing of FBI director James Comey or his presidential campaign’s purported connections to Russia through Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, or other associates—amounted to impeachable offenses?

“I think we have a lot of questions that need answers,” Tonko replied. “What intelligence did the president actually share? Why was that meeting closed to the US press? How did the Russian press get in? Did Trump pressure Comey to stop investigating Flynn? Did the president really ask him to start arresting journalists? Because freedom of the press and the first amendment is one of the fundamental building blocks of Democracy. So before I get to the ‘I’ word I would have a lot of questions and those questions require answers.”

We spoke to Tonko three days after Trump fired Comey, the man overseeing the investigation into Russian ties to Trump’s campaign, citing recommendations from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rothstein. Over the next few days the White House walked back that rationale after criticism mounted that Sessions had earlier recused himself from the Russian investigation. On May 11, in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, Trump said he was going to fire Comey regardless of recommendations from the Department of Justice. The New York Times reported on the same day that Trump had had a personal dinner with Comey and asked him to pledge his loyalty.

Then, on May 15, multiple outlets reported that Trump revealed sensitive information to a visiting Russian ambassador. The information, originally obtained by an ally country, pertained to terrorist threats. Intelligence officials said the sharing of such information could put the lives of field agents in danger and jeopardize our relationships with allies that share this type of information. It was later reported that Israel was the source of the information.

On May 18, The Alt spoke again to Tonko, this time by phone, while he was in Washington preparing with his Democratic colleagues to circulate a petition in an attempt to force a vote on a bill, sponsored by Rep. Elijah Cummings, that would create an independent commission to investigate Trump’s ties to Russia. The commission would be modeled after the 9/11 Commission.

“I firmly believe we need a special prosecutor. A special prosecutor is the solution here,” he told The Alt. “We don’t need to put the constitution at risk. We don’t need a force like Putin, who would love to destroy any democracy around the world, to enter in with his forces of dissension to rip apart our democracy. He knows we’re a force, and that bothers him, and if there is indication, as has been suggested, that the Trump campaign is being investigated because of connections to Russian hackers and the first ring of the concentric circles of Trump advisers is also being connected in a way, then that’s cause for us to really drill down thoroughly, because it’s about this country and her future. It’s about this democracy for which she stands and making sure as patriots we get things done—not as Republicans or Democrats. This is about speaking to the ultimate fundamental core need of protecting the Constitution.”

Only a few hours later, perhaps in a bit of vindication for Tonko, the Justice Department named former FBI head James Mueller as special counsel for the Russia probe.

“This is not about Republicans or Democrats,” Tonko said. “This is about the fundamental safeguards for our constitution.”

Tonko, once ranked the 19th most liberal member of Congress by The National Review, has refrained from the kind of confrontational rhetoric directed at the Trump administration by some of his peers in Congress, including his friends Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. Tonko has repeatedly called for an independent investigator to look into connections between Trump’s campaign and Russia, but he has avoided as best he can taking on a partisan bent–to the frustration of some of the area’s left-leaning political advocates.

Tonko has kept much of his energy focused on defending and rallying around the Affordable Care Act, which Trump and Republicans in Congress have pledged to dismantle. “We’re wasting so much time and energy with the awkwardness and malfunctioning of this administration; it appears to be in chaos. Everyone is feeling the paralysis. This is a sideshow, but at the same time we need to uphold our Congressional responsibility to protect the fundamentals of the Constitution.”

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“Let me point out clearly,” said Tonko. “The Affordable Care Act is live, it’s hot and on the front burner. Maybe there are efforts to replace it with the issue du jour, but I’ll tell you, what I hear on the streets is that the people are very focused on that whole effort to repeal the ACA. It is very possible to focus on two items at once. I think we’ll show everyone we can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

Tonko has avoided some of the more partisan aspects of the Democrats’ strategy to fight Republicans on the ACA repeal. Some of his colleagues have ventured into Republican-controlled districts to hold town halls when incumbent Republicans have refused. Earlier this month, Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney held a town hall in Republican Rep. John Faso’s district.

“Maybe a Democrat ought to go into every district where a Republican who supported Trumpcare won’t hold a town hall meeting and do it for them, sit in that chair and say, ‘I’ll stand here and answer your questions until your own congressman starts doing his job,’” Maloney said during an interview on MSNBC.

Asked about Maloney’s move, Tonko said: “I think people [in Congress] are frightened by some of these issues, so people would rather not deal with them. But we have to be upfront here. The facilitation of town halls is tremendous. I was out there in ’09 and ’10 when the climate was not that encouraging [for Democrats], and I’m out there now. One of the fundamental opportunities we have is to facilitate sound communication with our neighbors. Community dialogue is significant and it bears more relevance, importance today because it is very easy to ‘app’ your way to a safe place where people don’t challenge your thinking. Having these discussions allows you to grow and stretch and maybe change your opinion. As elected officials, we have the responsibility to encourage and coax community dialogue. We don’t do that enough, and technology without discipline can separate us and channel us into these comfort zones that don’t serve us well.”

Tonko did not mention any local Republican representatives by name, which seemed in keeping with what he’s known for—his affability, his wont to keep channels open across party lines, and his reluctance to get caught in heated partisan disputes.

He’s remained true to himself as Trump’s scandals have engulfed American politics, but he has also been a forceful advocate for a special prosecutor to investigate the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

While the Trump administration has appeared unable, unwilling or unprepared to move a legislative agenda, it has taken a number of executive actions. One of the most striking moves has been a series of airstrikes against targets in Syria. The US government is also reportedly active in training, aiding and fighting alongside Syrian freedom fighters against Syrian government forces. Was this conflict getting lost in the Trump news cycle?

“It seems somewhat hypocritical, doesn’t it, given that we’re aiding this fight for freedom and enabling people be strengthened against evil forces in their homelands, and here we’re unwilling to even drill down for information,” Tonko said.

“With military strategy, we need a plan,” he added, after being asked if the president had communicated a coherent strategy for Syrian intervention. “It seems impulsive behavior is the rule of thumb. But military response without a plan to insert that responsiveness will fail. And that plan needs to draw in; unlike the refugee ban, it needs to draw in the intelligence community and the Department of Defense. We need to make sure the experts are part of the process. Otherwise, we get into a situation like the refugee ban, which was done in a vacuum, that results in a lightning rod of recruitment opportunities for ISIS, and that is not where we want to be. For us to act in that vacuum puts the nation at risk. We need our allies; we can’t go it alone.”

Tonko said the Trump administration has not shown congressional Democrats the courtesy of meeting with them to discuss his agenda or policy, or to find common ground.

“I find it unusual that the man who is leading the nation hasn’t come to the Democratic caucus,” said Tonko. “I’m not sure if he’s met with the Republican caucus, but I do know in the Obama administration’s infancy the president visited the Republican caucus. Politics is like any life experience. It is about relationships, and we do our best when we build those relationships. You define yourself and your counterparts do the same, so at least you know where you can find common or higher ground. Absent that it is a shot in the dark.”

Tonko said he felt is was too early to decide on a single leader for Democrats to rally around. He said that issues and policy are consuming legislators–not picking the next presidential candidate. However, he says he’s been involved in workshops and outreach to get a new generation of candidates involved in 2018.

Finally, The Alt asked Tonko whether the public has any recourse to influence the actions of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has pledged to roll back changes to policing made under the Obama Administration. Sessions has ordered a review of all agreements reached between the Department of Justice and local police departments to reduce racial profiling and other systemic abuses.

“A lot of the executive orders and a lot of what the Attorney General may do will try to roll back progress,” said Tonko. “What has been heartening here is the organic response of the general public. The grassroots-driven outburst shows me people are paying attention—they have priorities and opinions and they are sharing those avidly. I think the desire to change some of this—withdraw it, or roll it back—might be more difficult with this level of public scrutiny, a lot harder than they would have anticipated, and I think that’s a reason for hope. But we have to keep the energy going, keep pushing the ball forward, not give up and go backward. Ours is not to go backwards.”

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